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Oil palm has brought poverty, not wealth

In his recent ranting letter to Malaysiakini the chief executive of Malaysia’s Palm Oil Council accused me of having a “sinister voice” and a surprising agenda.

Based on no evidence at all he called me “a committed Green activist whose end goal is zero development, and therefore, zero poverty reduction and zero improvement of the lives of ordinary rural folk across Malaysia.”

Where are his facts?  After all, Yusof Basiron and the oil palm industry has ripped up vast tracts of land for industrial oil palm plantation, land that in very many cases was not theirs to rip up, whereas all I do is write about corruption and human rights.

Yet, whereas I work hard to stick to the facts and to bring evidence to back up what I say, Yusof replies with mere invective.

Back in 2010 Yusof hired the crooked PR firm FBC Media to promote his industry and they suggested to him that the best way to get public sympathy was to talk about ‘small holders’ and to imply that small holders and not big business and rampant corruption were driving the oil palm industry in Malaysia.

The above statement is based on fact, since I have the power point presentation FBC Media used to address Yusof, naming him personally.

Even though FBC was soon to be exposed as a crooked outfit, Yusof appears to be clinging on to their message points by attempting to pretend that the people benefitting from palm oil are mainly ‘small holders’ and not major agri-business.

He goes further, to accuse me of “mocking smallholders”.

Why would I wish to do that?  Given I spend my entire time sticking up for small landowners who are trying to keep their lands from the huge, politically backed agri-businesses, who control Yusof’s organisation, why would I mock small holders?

What I did do was mock a blatant PR exercise where chosen mouthpieces for the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (Salcra) were flown at public expense to London by Alfred Jabu, in order to claim that they were representative of the wealth an opportunities allegedly being offered to Sarawak’s native customary landowners, who have been forced into so-called joint ventures run by the state government.

One of these mouthpieces claimed that her family now has several cars, thanks to being a ‘small holder’.

NCR landowners suffer very poor lives

I am now banned from visiting Sarawak (which is why I write from my “comfortable berth in London”) but my earlier visits have informed me that the vast majority of NCR land owners living on Salcra plantations suffer very poor lives and certainly do not have several cars in each family.

Their wealth of timber and land have been stolen, in many cases by corrupt politicians and their business cronies, and the ‘dividends’ Salcra provides to these ‘small holders’ on their plantations are laughably low, just a few hundred ringgit a year at best and in many cases nothing at all.

Who buys ‘cars’ on that?

Most Sarawakians whose ‘smallholdings’ have been forced into Salcra ‘joint ventures’ do not bother to even work their lands, because the daily wages are so low. Indentured labourers from Indonesia are used instead and Salcra is run like all the other vast agri-plantations across Sarawak, which is to say they use foreign cheap labour and most of the huge profit goes to big business and outsiders.

I write about this because it is a disgrace and because palm oil has brought poverty not wealth to these local communities, a point that has been reinforced by none other than the World Bank, which instituted a moratorium on lending to oil palm plantation in 2009 for two years, after concluding that industrial scale oil palm plantation has too often impoverished and not improved the lives of native people. Are they sinister too, Yusof?

Of course, oil palm is a useful crop and it could have been developed to the benefit of small holders.  It could also have been developed far more sensitively with a view to the environment to the benefit of all. However, that would have deprived the mega-rich cronies around BN of a sizeable chunk of their current profits and so far it is not what has happened in Sarawak.

I take Yusof’s hyper-sensitivity over my right to express an opinion on such matters and my ban from the state of Sarawak, as a sign that I cannot be the only person to have observed these issues, or else they could afford to take no notice of me.

CLARE REWCASTLE-BROWN is editor of whistleblower website Sarawak Report and Radio Free Sarawak .

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