New Straits Times - - LETTERS - S.T. Jasin, Me­laka

AS en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness about palm oil is strong in Europe, the Euro­pean Union’s pro­posed ban on palm oil bio­fu­els by 2020 has been caus­ing anx­i­ety among Malaysian oil palm grow­ers early this year, as EU is Malaysia’s third largest palm oil cus­tomer.

Pri­mary In­dus­tries Min­is­ter Teresa Kok’s sug­ges­tion about halt­ing oil palm ex­pan­sion in the coun­try is a wel­come at­tempt to quell the grow­ing anti-palm oil sen­ti­ment.

Her aim of get­ting the palm oil in­dus­try to achieve 100 per cent Malaysian Sus­tain­able Palm Oil (MSPO) cer­ti­fi­ca­tion by Dec 31 next year, how­ever, trou­bles me.

This is even though I have no doubt that a higher MSPO par­tic­i­pa­tion will mit­i­gate is­sues such as water­shed pro­tec­tion, pol­lu­tion, slope pro­tec­tion and cus­tom­ary land rights.

MSPO does not ad­dress the ele­phant in the room. There are oil palm plan­ta­tions that op­er­ate in for­est in­te­ri­ors or wildlife cor­ri­dors. How are th­ese plan­ta­tions en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly and sus­tain­able? How can th­ese plan­ta­tions join MSPO?

Al­low­ing th­ese plan­ta­tions to at­tain MSPO cer­ti­fi­ca­tion is akin to be­tray­ing the sus­tain­abil­ity la­bel of MSPO.

It is also naïve to as­sume that the truth will not be dis­cov­ered by con­sumers. If the truth is pub­li­cised in­ter­na­tion­ally, we will not be deal­ing with just a pub­lic re­la­tions nightmare.

The Roundtable on Sus­tain­able Palm Oil (RSPO) cer­ti­fi­ca­tion used to be the go-to cer­ti­fi­ca­tion scheme for Malaysian oil palm grow­ers, prior to MSPO, which was in­tro­duced in 2015.

There is, how­ever, one stark dif­fer­ence be­tween MSPO and RSPO. MSPO al­lows oil palm to be planted on peat land, while RSPO is push­ing for a strict “no plant­ing on peat” pol­icy via RSPO Next. RSPO Next is a vol­un­tary ef­fort that en­gages with RSPO mem­ber com­pa­nies that have met re­quire­ments and guid­ance of RSPO prin­ci­ples and cri­te­ria.

Other con­di­tions of RSPO Next are no de­for­esta­tion, no fire, re­duc­tion of green­house gases, and re­spect for hu­man rights and trans­parency.

Peat land is im­por­tant for car­bon stor­age and flood con­trol. Con­ver­sion of peat land will re­lease huge amount of green­house gases into the at­mos­phere, ex­ac­er­bat­ing the ef­fects of cli­mate change.

It is mind-bog­gling to think that we are push­ing for 100 per cent MSPO cer­ti­fi­ca­tion, which al­lows plant­ing of oil palm on peat land. How can we sell MSPO prod­ucts to con­sumers who value sus­tain­abil­ity then?

I am no anti-palm oil con­ser­va­tion­ist, and ac­knowl­edge Malaysian palm oil in­dus­try’s con­tri­bu­tion to our econ­omy.

How­ever, if we do not start ad­dress­ing sus­tain­abil­ity is­sues, we will never be able to stop the “de­mon­is­ing” of palm oil.

As a con­se­quence, the in­dus­try will con­tinue to suf­fer from the anti-palm oil sen­ti­ment.

The more press­ing mat­ter is to fig­ure out how we can tackle the palm oil sus­tain­abil­ity is­sue.

First, recog­nise that de­cep­tion will not bring us far. I fear the RM23 mil­lion pro­vi­sion from the Fi­nance Min­istry to com­bat the neg­a­tive per­cep­tion of Malaysian palm oil would be a fu­tile ex­er­cise.

In­stead, we should ac­knowl­edge that we need to im­prove the sus­tain­abil­ity as­pect of Malaysian palm oil, and that there should be se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion to re­vise the MSPO cer­ti­fi­ca­tion scheme, es­pe­cially the part on “plant­ing on peat land”.

Sec­ond, we should demon­strate that we are com­mit­ted to tackle the palm oil sus­tain­abil­ity is­sue co­he­sively.

I am for for­mer en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist Wong Tack’s sug­ges­tion to set up a tri-min­is­te­rial ad­vi­sory coun­cil in­volv­ing the Pri­mary In­dus­tries Min­istry, Wa­ter, Land and Nat­u­ral Re­sources Min­istry, and En­ergy, Green Tech­nol­ogy, Sci­ence, Cli­mate Change and En­vi­ron­ment Min­istry.

In­puts from other min­istries will bet­ter en­sure that blind spots are not over­looked.

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