Many critics of the Malaysian oil palm industry do not know that Malaysia agreed to generously keep aside its pristine natural tropical forests 15 years ago when the country pledged at the Rio Earth Summit to maintain a minimum of 50% of its land area under permanent forests. The policy behind the pledge remains intact as Malaysia today still has 56% of its area under permanent natural forests. Such a large percentage of forests is maintained mainly for conservation purposes and to support the forest industry which enables Malaysia to be a world major exporter of tropical timber. Besides providing more than adequate area for biodiversity and habitat needs including home for the orang utans and global warming mitigation purposes, the timber industry allows Malaysia to earn some RM 22.56 billion in 2008 or 3.4% of the country’s export earnings.
Timber production has gone through its own cycle of environmental attacks by NGOs and remedial measures have been put in place to ensure only sustainably managed timber and legal timber products are exported. The process of adopting an internationally recognised certification scheme for sustainable and legal timber has taken a long time to evolve as not all producer countries and importers are committed to adopt a common sustainability scheme. Malaysia has progressed much in these efforts as more and more of its timber are exported under some forms of certified timber scheme depending on the demand and agreement with the regional importers.
If Malaysia’s forests are already recognised to be sustainably managed, and not be allowed for conversion to other uses in order to stabilise the area, how then can the allegations still be made by NGOs linking oil palm cultivation with deforestation? Ignorance and wrong assumptions are to be blamed. Land developed for agriculture lies outside the permanent forest areas under the country’s land use policy. This means up to 50% of the country’s land area can be developed into various land uses for national development. As a developing country, Malaysia needs to develop its land to build cities and towns, villages and industrial parks, recreational grounds and water bodies, roads and highways and of course create agricultural areas to plant food and commodity crops for its people. Based on the guidance of the national land use policy, about 25% of the country is allocated to agriculture and the remaining 25 % is for the other uses keeping in mind that a minimum of 50 % of the country is already locked in for conservation purposes such as permanent natural forests.
Malaysia aspires to be a developed country by the year 2020 and like most developed countries, conversion of forests into agriculture took place decades or centuries ago. In Malaysia deforestion for agriculture was pioneered by the British in the early part of the 20th Century when forest areas zoned for agriculture were cleared to plant initially coffee, then rubber and later oil palm as dictated by the feasibility of producing such crops during that time. Even after Malaysia achieved independence in 1957, the development of agriculture continued, as until then the benefits of plantation agriculture were mainly enjoyed by the British who owned most of the large plantation companies. To allow the locals to enjoy the same benefits, FELDA was created. It was mandated to develop around 2 million acres of mostly forested land to resettle landless farmers. Professional surveyors from New Zealand were recommended by the World Bank to survey the forests to identify areas suitable for agriculture for FELDA to open up its land development schemes beginning in the 1950s with funds from the World Bank .
Like the developed countries, Malaysia too can give the excuses that the main deforestation of its land for conversion to agriculture has occured in the distant past, but unlike the situation in the developed countries, development was made under the supervision of international professional land surveyors and officially funded by the World Bank. For NGOs and their followers to come back years later to make allegations linking oil palm cultivation with deforestion in Malaysia is not proper, and probably decades too late. It is akin to barking up the wrong tree. The NGOs seem to suggest that deforestation in the developed countries was something that occured in the past beyond the control of their present governments. For example, the Romans were blamed for removing most of the forests of Britain. British NGOs should also admit that Malaysia’s pristine forests were mostly deforested by the British when they established their rubber and oil palm plantations during the first half of 20 th century. However, they did it in a civilised way by leaving a sizeable area of forests to be reserved as protected forests. That legacy led to the current policy of maintaining at least 50% of Malaysia as permanent natural forests.
The current land use policy as described above, brings many benefits to Malaysia especially when confronted with the challenges of the global warming debate. Firstly, with at least 50% of its forest intact, and up to 90 % of its agricultural land planted with tree crops, thus providing another 22% equivalent of the country’s land with tree cover, Malaysia can still claim to be a net carbon sink country based on currently available data. We are reminded recently that President Obama proudly announced that the USA is providing incentives to encourage reforesting of abandoned agricultural lands to promote more tree cover and mitigate global warming. It would not be too difficult to recognise that most of the agricultural lands in Malaysia have been planted with forest tree species, oil palm and rubber all along (without any incentives given!). That is why Malaysia is still a net carbon sink country despite having industrialised for the last 50 years.
The second benefit of our land use policy is our ability to face up to any allegations of deforestation especially when these are linked to the development of our agricultural sector. Malaysia’s forest to total land ratio is superior to that of most other countries, and so too is our agricultural land to total land area ratio. No one can accuse Malaysia of not providing enough forests to provide habitats to sustain the orang utans population as Sabah has almost 50% of its area under natural permanent forests and Sarawak has much higher. These are the two States of Malaysia where orang utans exist in the natural forests. The recently organised orang utan colloquium did recognise the need to reconnect the fragmented forests outside the main permanent forest using the concept of forest corridors to provide extra flexibility for the orang utans to travel back to the main forest after visiting the fragmented forests and nearby oil palm plantations where more food is available.
Thirdly we should be reminded that biodiversity is not supposed to be found in our agricultural land as is the case with all other countries. Our policy of conserving more than 50% of our land as permanent natural forests which include natural parks, wildlife sancturies and totally protected forest will provide for the need to conserve biodiversity. I can not help thinking how illogical some of the debates that are going on in the internet (some even by Professors) who grossly exaggerate that our agricultural lands, including oil palm and rubber plantations do not have as much biodiversity as the natural forests: why must our agricultural land including oil palm and rubber plantations have high biodiversity like the tropical forests? Are agricultural lands in the West having as high biodiversity as the temperate forests? I hope these groups will understand once and for all that when 50% of our land is locked in as permanent protected forests, preservation of biodiversity and wildlife habitats is assured. If not tell us how much more land, percentage wise, should be under forest and do the countries where these critiques come from provide their share of natural forests or plantation forests to protect the biodiversity and wildlife habitat requirements to the same high standards as adopted by Malaysia. Show us figures for comparison.
In a world where the EU and the USA would not agree to clean up their emitted CO2 unless developing countries do the same, Malaysia can claim to have already contributed its share by being a net carbon sink country. More than 80 % of the accumulated CO2 leading to the accelerated increase in global CO2 concentration was from years of industrial development taking place in the developed countries. Now the EU is proposing that developing countries must commit to reduce their emissions, or else there will be no agreement at the coming Copenhagen Climate Change meeting, meaning that the EU and USA would not clean up the accumulated emissions that they have caused in the past which are contributing to the present global warming tendency. I am sure the developing countries at the Climate Change meeting in Copenhagen in December will insist on equitable responsibility for the developed countries to first clean up their massive past emissions before commitments for future emission reduction can be shared by all countries.
The same argument is made in the deforestation debate by the western NGOs who are asking developing countries to preserve their forests while developed countries need not have to do anything because they have already deforested most of their forests. Is Malaysia supposed to help clean up the emission of the developed countries (due to their past overdeforestation) by keeping a maximum area of forests even though the country is already a net carbon sink country,( ie has taken care of its own CO2 emissions by keeping enough forests)? Some developed countries like Canada is still deforesting for agricultural development , where up to 10 million hectares are planned to be deforested in the near future. Why do the NGOs remain silent on such deforestation. How many times have the NGOs cited Canada for continuing to deforest up to 100,000 hectares per year for agricultural developments (and another 10 million hectares are still planned to be deforested), compared to accusations levelled at Malaysia where deforestation has essentially stopped 15 years ago and the total area developed for oil palm in the last 100 years is only 4.5 million hectares or less than 0.09 % of total agricultural land area of the world.
If Malaysia is already a net cabon sink country it should be appreciated for its contribution to mitigate global warming. It also means that its land use policy is working optimally to benefit the planet, the people and the national development objectives. The NGOs should not ask Malaysia to do more than its equitable share in mitigating global warming, or providing biodiversity and wildlife habitat conservation. We have already sacrificed greatly in maintaining a large percentage of our land as forest. Revenue generated from natural forests is 33 times lower than the revenue if the land is used for agriculture for oil palm or rubber cultivation. At present, our sacrifice for keeping an above average percentage of forests is not being compensated by the rich net CO2 emitter countries of the world; our role as a carbon sink country in helping to clean up the CO2 emitted by developed countries remains unappreciated; our palm oil, a produce of our agricultural industry continues to be smeared. It is hard to make sense of these illogical situations unless we agree that the ulterior motives by the EU and their NGOs are to block the import trade of a competitive product like palm oil, or allow the NGOs to collect toll money by introducing unnecessary certification schemes or shall we agree that greed and double standards have overtaken fairplay in order for some to survive in this modern world.
(Note: Follow this Blog in a future article to learn of the manupulations and professional act of omissions used to limit the import of palm oil into the EU and USA which will result in both set of countries promoting the worst biofuels on earth using locally produced oils and fats).