Palm oil and international law: A tale of double standards

Are the majority of oil palm smallholders and workers earning a handsome income?

Jentera berat sedang menceroboh tanah kebun sawit milik penduduk Orang Asli - FILE FOTO

I wonder whether the newly appointed World Trade Organization (WTO) director-general, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala from Nigeria, knows that Malaysia “stole” her country’s oil palm (elaeis guineensis)?

Or was it actually an act of “God” because the British were instrumental in bringing oil palm seedlings from Nigeria to British Malaya in the early 1870s as an ornamental plant – as the Malaysian plantation industries and commodities minister implied with the slogan “Sawit Anugerah Tuhan” (Palm oil, God’s gift)?

Nigeria was once the world’s largest palm oil producer and exporter. Alas for the nation, the oil palm trees also thrived in the Far East. Motivated by increasing demand for palm oil as a vegetable oil and other technical uses during the Industrial Revolution in Europe, the astute British developed oil palm into an agricultural crop in then Malaya, with the first commercial estate established in Kuala Selangor in 1917.

After the British colonial authorities left, federal, state-owned and private corporate businesses continued planting vast areas of land with large-scale commercial oil palm plantations in Peninsular Malaysia, followed by Sabah and then Sarawak.

This damaged the traditional palm oil industries in Nigeria and other countries, affecting hundreds of thousands of smallholders and many more workers there.

These days, the oil palm industry is the golden sector of Indonesia and Malaysia, the top two producers and exporters of palm oil in the world.

Because Europe is one of the world’s biggest palm oil consumers and a major market for Malaysian palm oil biofuel, losing the key European market worries Malaysia.

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Malaysia reportedly has filed legal action with the WTO against the EU’s restrictions on palm oil-based biofuel.

Invariably, much has been made of an EU ban threatening the livelihoods of 650,000 smallholders and over 3.2 million Malaysians who rely on the industry, driving them all into poverty.

So, the ‘caring’ government warned that it would take action to protect the rights and livelihoods of Malaysian smallholders if the EU implements any ban on palm oil.

The European Parliament decided on 17 January 2018 to phase out palm oil by 2021 and cap crop-based biofuels at its member states’ 2017 consumption levels and at 7% of all transport fuels until 2030, under the Renewable Energy Directive, an EU law that oversees all rules on renewable energy, including palm oil biofuels.

I agree we need to support the nation’s small farmers. Yet, looking back over the years, the dominant economic model of capitalists has hardly supported the roles of women, men and youths among the various indigenous and other poor communities of the peninsula and in Sarawak and Sabah in their subsistence and smallholding activities.

Ample evidence reveals that large state entities and companies and prominent personalities dominate the oil palm industry in both West and East Malaysia. (Do a quick search of the annual reports of certain companies listed on the Bursa Malaysia stock exchange.) So, despite the rhetoric, isn’t it clear that their core concern is losing billions of ringgit of palm oil income?

The Malaysian government’s argument that the oil palm sector provides a way out of poverty for over 650,000 smallholders is appealing. But are the majority of smallholders earning handsomely in the oil palm industry?

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While Malaysia (and Indonesia) can take pride in being the world’s two greatest oil palm producers, many plantation workers, especially women and poor families, remain invisible as labourers who live in depressing conditions and earn a pittance. This is in striking contrast to the rich and powerful large-scale plantation owners.

Where is the justice for sexually abused victims?

It is unfortunate and ironic that the Malaysian government has not shown the same zeal in a pressing issue that reported happened in our backyard: alleged rapes of women workers in plantations as exposed by an international media outlet.

Beyond a loud message from a top officer in the Malaysian Palm Oil Council that “the perpetrators of these obnoxious crimes should be caught and duly punished” when the news broke, little appears to have been done to probe the allegations so far.

Apparently, Malaysian federal and state governments and enforcement authorities continue to turn a deaf ear to the cry for help from those in remote settlements, notably abused victims who have suffered from the violence for so long.

Sadly, the same is happening in other countries.

Yet, a Malaysian minister daringly accused the EU in 2017: “In a sequence of acts that is akin to crop apartheid, the EU Parliament has taken steps to raise trade barriers, leading to ultimate breach of the EU’s WTO commitments.”

In the same vein, aren’t the forced rape and other sexual assault cases happening in Malaysian plantations (as well as within the homes and in other locations), going against the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), which Malaysia ratified in 1995, and other human rights instruments?

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Carol Yong is an activist and independent writer

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Paul Lim
Paul Lim
1 Mar 2021 8.27pm

I had written an article published by Aliran where I stated that in Europe today you have suicides by farmers especially in France because they cannot compete with the big boys of farming.

For what you mention of what is happening to workers etc. soon there will be due due diligence law related to supply chains where European companies have to check that at the bottom of the chain of suppliers labour and environmental standards are respected. The company can be brought to court and foreigners can bring their case to European courts. So long to arrive at this legislation.

J. D. Lovrenciear
26 Feb 2021 5.22pm

Thank you Carol for the informative write up. Indeed your expose and concerns knits in well with the generally held and growing perception that the ordinary, poor and growing B40 segments are mere pawns of oligarchs who work in cohort with greedy politicians and those in power harbouring their own vested interest in wealth hording.