Palm oil, the most hotly contested and debated subject on earth, has come a long way since it was first introduced into Malaysia a century ago. The versatile natural ingredient has today become the darling of both food and non-food applications, inviting admiration and envy at the same time.
For the palm industry, it is not going to be a bed of roses when there are so many anti-palm oil messages blasting from different corners of the world. It is conveniently accused of being an unhealthy oil and causing deforestation. Many unsubstantiated claims are infecting the industry day and night.
We may as well skip the ‘health and nutrition’ topic considering it has been discussed many times on the knowMYpalmoil forum. Let’s talk a little more about deforestation and why we need a more integrated approach to address it, especially global participation.
I don’t mean the Malaysian government would just sit there and do nothing at all. In fact, the government has been keeping itself busy as much as possible all this while, correcting the misperceptions while promoting Malaysian palm oil, from one continent to another diligently.
Taking the bull by the horns
Through "Love MY Palm Oil" campaign, Primary Industries minister Teresa Kok is calling for greater industry participation in promoting palm oil while telling the whole world that the Malaysian government is putting impactful measures in place to address deforestation issues.
Datuk Dr. Kalyana Sundram, chief executive officer of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) echoed that:
“We are getting a lot of assistance such as specific government policies to strike a balance between socioeconomic development and environmental sustainability. We have a minister (Primary Industries minister Teresa Kok) who takes the bull by the horns.”
“For example, she has announced that oil palm cultivated areas are to be capped at 6.5 million hectares by 2023; and newly forested land cannot be converted into oil palm plantation; no cultivation on peatland, high carbon stock and conservation areas. All these are positive moves that are helping us address the world in palm oil debate,” he continued.
“We are using those tools (decisive policies) to communicate our messages to the world. During our recent trips to Europe, such moves were received with a lot of appreciation as the minister tirelessly explained the critical goals of those policies to her counterparts from different countries,” Dr. Sundram reassured us with a very clear message that Malaysia has been doing a lot on the ground, including reforestation and wildlife conservation.
Setting a laudable benchmark
Forests are more than just trees. The presence of forests is so vital to all living creatures for a number of reasons. They feed us, clean up dirty air, and even keep the earth cool, as Mother Nature Network cleverly puts it.
“I think most nations around the world already cannot match our forest cover percentage. Take Europe for example, which is averaging about 32 to 35%, their forest cover could hardly match the 55% that we have in Malaysia,” Dr. Sundram said.
The World Bank statistics show that the percentage of forest area (% of land area) in Europe was about 38% in 2016.
“So we tell the Europeans, increase your forest cover to 40%. Why not? You demand everything from us and other palm oil producing nations, but you just can’t match the forest cover here,” he challenged.
Malaysia has pledged to maintain a natural forest cover of more than 50% of its total land mass at the 1992 UN Rio Earth Summit.
“The key message we are trying to convey is that there are already crucial government policies being enforced to ensure our forest cover will not go below 50%. We are still maintaining that (currently approx. 55%), which is a good, healthy number,” he emphasized.
“One may ask, what else does the world want from us?”
“In fact we have been walking the talk. About two months ago the minister launched a large-scale replanting scheme of forest trees in Sabah by involving the industry players directly. The target is to plant one million of different forest tree species over the next 10 years,” he said.
Put your money where your mouth is
Much debate has taken place on whether the rich nations should shoulder more responsibility for carbon cuts.
“We are working hard on it. The West has always been advocating reforestation and we certainly welcome our critics to come and join us in such reforestation campaigns so that they can put their money where their mouth is. There are many potential reforestation areas around Malaysia,” Dr. Sundram suggested.
“But it’s a very costly affair and we certainly need money to reforest as much as can be. We really hope that those very vocal western countries can provide us some sort of financial assistance to reforest this part of the world. We are going to ask them for support and let’s see what their response will be,” he wittingly opened up an interesting topic.
Are we getting any? “Not yet,” he replied promptly.
Quoting from a very thought-provoking article published by The Guardian, which says - The evidence seems pretty clear cut to me: the most developed nations should, indeed, proportionately do the heavy-lifting when it comes to tackling climate change, be that mitigation or funding adaptation.
And that includes the much needed technical support too.
Oil palm trees sequester carbon dioxide
Scientifically, plants use sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen through the process of photosynthesis. They are the main creators of the oxygen in the atmosphere. This means plants ‘breathe in’ carbon dioxide and ‘breathe out’ oxygen, as Conserve Energy Future rightly describes it.
“In the 5.8 million hectares (referring to Malaysia’s current total oil palm planted area) are trees standing. Those trees absorb carbon dioxide and contribute positively to counter climate change. Can you imagine, what if those multi-million hectares (of land) were just grassland? Then the ability to absorb carbon dioxide will be significantly reduced as compared with that of oil palm trees. That’s one way of looking at it,” Dr. Sundram explained.
“And therefore it is very important for the NGOs to take that into account when doing their calculations. They do the negative part of it and forget about the positive part. We are the ones who have to add the positive part into it,” he continued.
This article explains how palm plantations form a ‘green cover’ and act as a ‘green sponge’ to remove carbon dioxide and return oxygen back into the atmosphere.
On orangutan conservation
For either MPOC or wildlife conservation groups, the well-being of orangutans remains close to their hearts.
“Look at what we have done in Sabah and Sarawak. Our orangutan population is stable now. I am very happy to tell anybody, anywhere in the world, that those orangutans will be there forever. We will do everything within our capacity to ensure they survive. Although there are still challenges, they will survive,” said Dr. Sundram optimistically.
The Sabah Wildlife Department estimated an orangutan population of 11,000 in Sabah under the Orangutan Action Plan (2012 – 2016). The protected areas include the 26,000-hectare Lower Kinabatangan. The programme was supported by MPOC, HUTAN- Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme (KOCP), Borneo Rhino Alliance (BORA), Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC) and Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort.
Calling for collective global cooperation
As the world’s population keeps growing and becomes more affluent, promoting sustainable development, including sustainable production and consumption, requires concerted global actions amid many economic, social and environmental challenges.
A mutually beneficial co-existence between humans and nature is always possible as long as the world community keeps economic development and environmental sustainability in check with a universally shared goal in mind.
“The sheer complexity of the global palm oil industry means the ‘one size fits all’ approach leaves so much to be desired. The good news is that it is continuously improving itself even though some of it can only come at a slow pace, given the very nature of the industry. Although having a sustainable palm oil industry remains challenging, it is highly achievable,” Dr. Sundram made his assertion.