How to transform Malaysian palm oil from a boycotted commodity to a premium product

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Photograph: Save Rivers

Trusted rainforest protection certification for Malaysian palm oil is the way forward. Ch’ng Chin Yeow writes.

There have been many campaigns calling for the boycott of palm oil, including by the EU, the latest being by Australian chocolate maker Darrell Lea.

In a press release, Darrell Lea says it will change over a hundred of its products to remove palm oil, citing the “major devastation” the controversial ingredient causes. The company is now calling on others to follow suit and says it is listening to the views of consumers concerned about the major devastation to rainforests and endangered animals, such as orangutans, caused by palm oil production.

Cuti-Cuti Malaysia had successfully used posters of adorable orangutans and tranquil virgin rainforests to draw tourists from around the world. Those fortunate enough to visit the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in Sarawak near Kuching could not help but be charmed by Ritchie the Bigboss and the other orangutans there.

Orangutans are 97% genetically similar to the human species and are found in the unique rainforests in Sumatra and in the island of Borneo, including Sabah and Sarawak. Habitat loss, poaching and global warming are the biggest threats to their survival.

Orangutans and pygmy elephants are highly endangered. Scientists have warned that the extinction of one species in any forest will have serious repercussions to the entire ecosystem. 

According to Sarawak Report, logging licences are routinely issued to companies that have political links to the state governments. As a result, custodian landowners are removed from their own lands and become ‘squatters’ in new settlements, sparking resentment. Many among the older generations suffer from mental health issues as they have been unable to adapt to the market economy where everything is paid for in cash. Previously, their backyards were their supermarket – a place so accessible where all their everyday needs could be fulfilled. 

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The laws of physics say energy can neither be created nor destroyed. The earth used to be a fiery planet when it was created. It took millions of years for it to cool down, trapping all its energy within its core. Human beings through their collective disregard and with their insatiable needs have overexploited nature since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution over 200 years ago.

All this will lead to the destruction of the Earth and threaten the survival of humanity and other animal species. The atmosphere today has the highest amount of carbon ever recorded over the last 800,000 years, according to scientists.

We experience firsthand the effects of the destruction of rainforests in our region. The dreaded annual haze season, caused by the burning of virgin rainforests in Sumatra and Kalimantan, is all too familiar to us.

The clearing of the rainforests for oil palm cultivation has been directly blamed for the misery felt by hundreds of millions of people in the Asean region. The financial benefits to a handful of big palm oil companies are directly paid for by the suffering, including related respiratory health issues, and deaths of many. Wildlife in these rainforests is also exterminated in untold numbers. 

The loss in working hours related to global warming over the next decade is equivalent to the loss of 80 million full-time jobs over 10 years, and this is equivalent to $2.4tn. This is according to the findings of Jason Lee, associated professor in thermal physiology at the National University of Singapore (Channel News Asia, Heat – The Longest Day).

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The Arctic experienced unprecedented heatwave conditions this summer with the highest temperature ever recorded for 12,000 years, at 38C. The permafrost around the world is melting at an unprecedented rate, releasing greenhouse gases trapped for thousands of years, further worsening global warming. Microbes trapped for thousands of years are also being released into the atmosphere and could cause havoc and unabated diseases.

The biodiversity in our rainforests cannot be overstated. Many plant species have potential medicinal value that researchers have not yet discovered. By protecting our rainforests and catchment areas, we are also protecting our precious water resources. Scientists have predicted water will be the most precious commodity in the coming decades.

The UN has described those fleeing sub-Saharan regions as environmental refugees. The encroachment of deserts into arable farmlands and the salinisation of rivers and underground water have made water more scarce.

There is no benefit in clearing more rainforests to increase agricultural production. With the associated prolonged droughts and rains due to global warming, yields will fall due to crop failure or shorter planting seasons. Rice farmers in many regions including Vietnam are left with only one crop rather than two crops this year due to a shorter planting season and crop failure. 

So there is no financial benefit in clearing more rainforests for oil palm cultivation and logging: the associated costs are simply too great. If Malaysia can assure the world there is no further destruction to our rainforests for oil palm cultivation and logging and no further expansion of oil palm plantations into countries like Papua New Guinea, global consumers will put a premium on Malaysian palm oil. Malaysian palm oil will then be a premium branded palm oil instead of a mere commodity.

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This is like ethical certification for tea, coffee and cocoa; the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme for rough diamonds; and a couple of standards in the gold industry. It will not only ensure the protection of our rainforests and of our beloved orangutans and other wildlife, but also reduce global warming and help sustain crop yields. Scientists using high-tech scanners have proven that oil palm plantations hold only a fraction of the carbon held by rainforests.

By retaining our rainforests, Malaysia may be able to reap financial rewards under the carbon trading scheme. We can also promote genuine ecotourism to international and domestic tourists. By implementing such ethical corporate responsibility, Malaysia will also be able to pressure other countries to do the right thing by the environment to prevent global warming.

A CNN video last year, at the height of the haze season in Asean, showed heart-wrenching images of a male orangutan fighting a losing battle against a bulldozer, in a bid to protect his tree. This is the everyday sad reality when our rainforests are cleared for logging and oil palm cultivation. 

Preserving the orangutans, our most famous ambassador, and the rainforests is not only the ethically right thing to do, it is the most financially sound policy for Malaysia. Rainforest protection certification for Malaysian palm oil will make our palm oil a premium branded product instead of a mere commodity, and Malaysian palm oil will no longer be subjec to boycott.

Ch’ng Chin Yeow has an interest in many issues and subjects, including history, mineralogy and human behaviour. Based in Penang, he truly likes to be a busybody

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