IT has been reported that the Primary Industries Ministry is seriously considering a policy to limit the expansion of the country’s oil palm cultivation so that the nation’s area under forest is kept at 50 per cent.
That message appears to suggest that the expansion in oil palm areas would be at the expense of our forest cover.
It may have been taken by some to mean that oil palm plantations have been the culprit in the decimation of our forests. This correlation is untrue.
The facts have been presented many times and on many occasions by custodians of the palm oil industry in the country, namely the Malaysian Palm Oil Council and Malaysian Palm Oil Board.
The truth is, all these years, the expansion in oil palm cultivation has never been at the expense of the nation’s forest cover.
If at all, oil palm planting has saved many deforested areas from turning into unproductive land, susceptible to erosion and defertilisation. The oil palm cover brings back the land’s productivity by rejuvenating it.
Sarawak has declared that the state will not be subservient to such a policy.
In fact, all states should not be. Sarawak still has vast areas that can be planted with oil palm. And why not? Palm oil can do a lot to help Sarawak alleviate the pockets of poverty in the state.
It has been proven many a time that oil palm can be a powerful crop to empower the rural economy. Though the price is rather low at the moment, experts believe it is temporary. We have always experienced the price cycle. The high price will return.
As the world population grows and as the global economy improves, the per capita consumption of edible oils will undoubtedly increase.
As the most price competitive edible oil, palm oil stands poised to capture most of the growing demand. So the better pricing will return.
Palm oil stands as the most viable to cater to the expanding demand for edible oils.
Why? Because the production of palm oil uses much less land than other oils. That is already positive for sustainability.
Furthermore, oil palm is a perennial. It is not much different from a natural forest in terms of providing a sink for greenhouse gases.
Maybe the only difference is that we see fewer tigers.
Palm oil is the most sustainable oil crop in the world. No other oil crops can even come close to it, never mind beating it.
The world should be thankful that we have oil palm. It is a true gift from nature.
Yes, we need to ensure sustainability. But it should be according to our mould of sustainability.
The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil Certification Scheme is a good initiative. But, its implementation should not be at the expense of the people’s wellbeing.
The ministry should reconsider the policy decision. We should not bow to such pressures.
We must remember that sustainability is not just about the environment.
It is very much about people and their prosperity. To reflect the real agenda of sustainability, the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil Certification Scheme must include the welfare of the people and the nation’s economy in the criteria.
This is especially crucial now when a majority of oil palm growers are smallholders. They are crying now because of low prices. We do not want to burden them with more demands than they can cope.
If the world is serious about importing the sustainability demand on oil crops, the call should not be discriminatory.
It should demand all the world oil crops to conform to an internationally agreed standard on sustainability.
Professor Datuk Dr Ahmad Ibrahim is a Fellow, at the Academy of Sciences Malaysia, UCSI University