Our orangutan and the edible oils war

Wong Ang Peng


LETTER | There is a line, an acceptable bound for advocates and their noble cause in environmental protection, Mother Nature, and orangutan preservation. But when advocates for orangutan preservation also directly or indirectly call for a boycott of palm oil, then that line is crossed into a zone of war – a trade war, a marketing war, s psychological war and a war using front-groups. Such is the recent controversial case where primary school pupils put up a play critical of the Malaysian palm oil industry.

The issue is not about stifling freedom of expression. In fact, the student should be commended for their spirited display of art and language. These young minds obviously could not be aware of a war concerning our nation’s primary industry being fought politically, diplomatically, psychologically, and even scientifically; and at stake our economy, national interest, and the livelihood of more than half a million people in the industry, including smallholders. If the teachers who guided the students in the play also were not aware, then wisdom could have escaped their adult minds.

Prominent mention was made to the Rang-Tan video during the play and the rhymes read out. The Rang-Tan video advert was released last Christmas by the British supermarket chain, Iceland. The British authority subsequently banned it for being too political. Besides being political, the video cleverly played on emotions of viewers. Video of the rebellious orangutan scornful of chocolates and shampoo, products manufactured with palm oil, plus words like “took away my mother” are subtle persuasive rhetorical language aimed to trap the simple-minded and the uninformed.

The marketing war over edible oils has been fought over the last three decades. In the beginning, the Western edible oil industry, in protecting its market share, attacked palm oil based on its high content of saturated fats. From 2015 onwards when science has established that saturated fats were not the culprit for heart disease, the tactic to attack palm oil switched to deforestation, and later habitat loss for orangutan.

Criticism of Malaysia fast deforestation has been unfair. According to a World Bank report in 2018, Malaysia has 67.6% forest of the total land area. In contrast, the UK has 13%, France 31%, Germany 32.7%, Italy 31.6%, US 33.9% and Canada 38.2% of their respective total land area.

Livestock and soy farming, a prominent industry in the West, cause more deforestation than oil palm cultivation. Canola, soy and corn plants use much more pesticides and herbicides than oil palm. Canola, or rapeseed plant, is mostly a genetically modified crop engineered to resist Roundup herbicide. Glyphosate, the main chemical in Roundup, has been linked to disruption of sex hormones, infertility, miscarriages, neurological problems, and cancer.

Critics should look into deforestation caused by oil crops and livestock farming in the West before criticising the Malaysian palm oil industry. Critics should also understand farming in the West, unlike in Malaysia, generally does not have wildlife causing crops damage and as such imposed their own value system and standard for sustainable farming.

Those who are quick to criticise sustainability need to know this. The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) has become the globally-recognised standard for palm oil. There are eight guiding principles for growers to be certified, including environmental responsibility and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity. Obtaining RSPO compliance certification comes with a heavy price which independent smallholders can ill afford. But big corporate plantations and more than a million hectares are already RSPO certified. The Malaysian Palm Oil Certificate (MSPO) certifies another 1.34 million hectares.

There is some truth that the orangutan population decline in Malaysia, especially in the low-lying rainforests in Sabah and Sarawak, has to do with habitat loss to plantations. El-Nino forest fires and hunting contribute to the decline too. The rate of habitat loss currently has been at a low level due to efforts of natural forest management. A comprehensive study by Santika et al (2017), "First integrative trend analysis for a great ape species in Borneo" concluded that there was a decline of 25% population over the last ten years due to various reasons. 

The study also mentioned that most of the orangutan population are now well adapted in the protected areas in the region. Malaysia’s protected rainforests are more than 54%, which is more than sufficient for a safe sanctuary to the more than 100,000-estimated population of Borneo orangutan today. Surely there cannot be 25 orangutan deaths daily as mentioned in the Rang Tan video.

Fair criticism on deforestation in Malaysia and orangutan preservation is welcomed. Blaming it on the palm oil industry and calling for a boycott of palm oil is treading into a hostile zone, and critics may unknowingly become tools used by front-groups in the edible oils war. The school with the Rang-Tan creature had unwittingly stepped into this war zone.

For those keen, a Google search of "Wong Ang Peng, palm oil" will present other articles written previously by yours truly on this subject.

The writer is chairperson, Society of Natural Health Malaysia, researcher, Dr Rath Research Institute and director of public communications, Persatuan Patriot Kebangsaan (Patriot).

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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