Here's wishing the Malaysian oil palm industry success. The Minister in charge of the industry, Datuk Mah, announced last week that the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil certification scheme (MSPO) will be mandatory. An aggressive timeline was also set to have all Malaysian supply of palm oil certified by 2019. That’s a very aggressive target as its only two years from now.
This announcement was positive news to me for a couple of reasons. When the MSPO certification was announced a few years ago, I flat out told friends in the industry that it would not be credible if left as a voluntary scheme where select areas are certified as window dressing with the bulk of it questionable in quality. We’ve seen voluntary certification of palm oil from the Swiss based non-profit, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) The voluntary approach does not work to deliver the complete end results that is needed to produce a product sustainably.
Oil palm operations in Malaysia are for the most part better than their counterparts in Indonesia where land grabs, deforestation and orangutan extinction is associated with the industry. This has not spared the Malaysian industry from being painted with the same broad strokes aimed at the palm oil industry as a whole.
In every discussion I've had with Malaysian industry members, the same question has always been asked. How do we get these "unfounded accusations” off Malaysian palm oil? My answer has always been the same.
Walk the talk. Be transparent. Engage all relevant stakeholders including social and environmental NGOs so that there are no questions on the standards or their enforcement.
Insider information is that this is actually being implemented as of this writing.
100 Years of Palm Oil in Malaysia
As the palm oil industry in Malaysia prepares to celebrate 100 years of oil palm cultivation in Malaysia, history buffs might be interested to learn that the oil palm Elaeis guineensis is not native to Malaysia. It was introduced to the region in the late 1800s by the British who ruled this part of South East Asia as a British colony. British Malaya as it was known at the time was one of the most profitable colonies as it was rich in natural resources including tin and rubber. The first commercial planting of the oil palm in Malaysia did not actually take place until 1917.
In my birth-state of Sarawak, which became independent from the Empire a few months after I was born, British commissioned training centres to train local farmers in oil palm cultivation still remain as heritage buildings.
I was asked recently by elementary school students in California to give my opinion on the negative environmental impacts of oil palm in Malaysia. I expressed my grief at having lost the peat forests that once surrounded the family home forty years ago in Sibu town. Early childhood memories of being able to catch freshwater eels right behind the family home, the pungent scent of peat swamps and wildlife that visited remain strong.
Sibu town where I grew up is now a bustling town but continues to have problems associated with peat lands in that some houses sink regardless of building foundations. Sibu is built on peat lands. That aside, the town boasts of a new airport and medical facilities which is providing its residents better health care and the chance to fly a few short hours to find world class medical facilities if the situation calls for it. This may sound like a digression but back in the day, our greatest fear was to need medical care in Singapore which was a few days away by boat.
Whether its tin, rubber or palm oil, Malaysia has gotten to where it is today through the continued exploitation of its natural capital. The world famous Petronas Towers stands as solid evidence of its progress since the declaration of independence in 1957 and the subsequent formation of Malaysia as we know it now.
The Next 100 Years of Palm Oil in Malaysia
The question now, since a sustainable world needs action from all nations and industries, is how will the palm oil industry in Malaysia conduct itself in the next 100 years?
On a national level, Malaysia has agreed to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change. I suspect that this commitment has something to do with the recent change in rhetoric from the palm oil industry. Rather than trying to compare percentages in deforestation to Western countries for the sake of development, which is a race to the bottom, the industry talk now is about racing the opposite way. About showing what sustainable palm oil is about when national agendas for development are included in defining sustainable palm oil.
Aiming to have all Malaysian palm oil certified as sustainable by 2019 will take commitment and funding with sweat to match. The biggest problem the Malaysian industry faces is that there simply isn’t enough demand for palm to be sustainable. In my chat with the kids in California the question of boycotting palm oil came about. (A call to boycott palm oil remains the quickest way to popularity on social media.) I asked them if they would rather be popular on social media with a call to boycott palm oil or make a real impact and ask countries like Malaysia to produce palm oil sustainably.
We know what it takes. After all these years of arguing about sustainable palm oil and what it should look like, we all know the requirements. Save key forests, save wildlife and respect human rights in a just and balanced approach that benefits not only the people in cities but every other living thing in the country.
Malaysia has a chance to show how it’s done. The allegations of deforestation and labor abuses are there but if the industry is willing to be transparent in its progress towards nationwide certification, it may yet establish once and for all, what sustainable palm oil management and production truly means.