Thursday, April 8, 2010

Senseless and Immoral Attacks on Palm Oil by NGOs

EU funding anti palm oil campaigns

A recent report revealed that the EU, through its environmental ministries and commissions is involved in funding up to 70% of the operating budgets of environmental NGOs. These NGOS are now viciously campaigning against palm oil imports into the EU especially for biofuels. We regard this as a senseless and immoral attack on exported commodities such as palm oil produced by developing countries. Such funding implicates the EU for creating barriers to trade for agricultural products from developing countries. Unlike the EU, developing countries do not have access to financial resources to fight such government funded vicious campaigns. The eventual outcome will be untold miseries where poor farmers in developing countries lose their source of income as their export commodities are unable to enter the EU market. Such covert protectionism by rich countries directed at products of developing countries is against the spirit of fostering international trade as promoted by WTO.

Lessons from Copenhagen

There is little attempt at hiding the intention of the EU to limit the growth of developing countries by forcing them to follow the path of a low carbon economy as this was the main agenda proposed at the Copenhagen Climate Change meeting in December last year. The latest report of the UK Environment Ministry regarding Post Copenhagen clearly spells out this intention. Part of the strategy or ploy was to pressure developing countries to stop converting forests into agricultural areas as deforestation is alleged to emit green house gases (GHG) . The outright rejection by developing countries against any effort to restrict their future growth as clearly conveyed at the Copenhagen meeting should be a lesson to the anti-palm oil NGOs that their governments would not be successful in forcing the developing countries from continuing to develop their economy. The lesson learnt from Copenhagen is that no amount of pressure or promise of compensation will make the developing countries surrender their rights to future development. When promises of compensation in the tune of billions of dollars were coming from countries that are themselves in severe debts and deficits, it would be suicidal for developing countries to agree to any attempt to curtail their economic growth on the basis of needing to reduce carbon emission. If carbon emission from deforestation is an issue, what about carbon emission from coal mining and fossil fuels? In all fairness, developing countries often wonder why environmental NGOs in the EU are busy scrutinizing oil palm plantations when their focus should be to campaign against much more highly polluting industries such as coal mines in the UK, Germany and Poland. These mines are the cause of global warming and environmental disasters.

Senseless attacks on palm oil will only hurt poor farmers in developing countries BUT - stopping local coal mining will certainly mitigate carbon emission.

It is a senseless act on the part of the EU and DG Environment to fund NGOs to campaign against the growth of the palm oil industry using the guise of the need to reduce GHG emissions and preserving biodiversity. Why stop oil palm cultivation when most of such activities are legitimate creation of agricultural land from unproductive degraded forests which have been logged many times in the last 50 years. NGOs admit to the fact that some 25 million hectares of forests have been deforested in Indonesia over the last 25 years. As the total area of oil palm cultivation is only around 7 million hectares, oil palm cultivation cannot be the cause of deforestation. In fact, oil palm does a great deal of justice to the environment by rehabilitating degraded forest into an equivalent of a plantation forest that brings immense benefits including rebuilding its carbon stock or sequestering carbon, providing income to farmers and food and fuel to the world. Furthermore, the land concerned has contributed to its share of carbon sequestration because the timber removed over the last 50 years is preserved and reused in developed countries as door and window frames, beams and roof trusses. These timber products act as perpetual carbon storage and only release CO2 when they are discarded or the houses are burned occasionally.

Replanting tropical degraded land with oil palm helps to continue the carbon sequestering cycle into the future. If the UK NGOs are targeting to reduce carbon emission from such deforestation, it clearly is a case of a misdirected campaign. It would be far better to focus locally where activities like coal mining are blatantly contributing to the release of carbon stored from deep below ground. The annual production of 18 million tonnes of coal in the UK would emit more than 52 million tonnes of CO2. Greenpeace should speak out as they do for tropical forest that such reserve of carbon stock should better be left un-mined. It is far more absurd that some attempts are being proposed to pump back CO2 into underground storage as a means for artificial carbon sequestration. Pumping CO2 under high pressure for such storage purposes will cause even more carbon emission. Compared to the 18 million tonnes of palm oil annually produced in Malaysia which emits no net CO2 since the CO2 is absorbed from the atmosphere during oil synthesis in the plant, it is clearly more logical to promote palm oil even as biofuel. If it is a toss up between stopping oil palm planting on degraded forest land in Sarawak or Indonesia and closing coal mines in the UK, it is more logical to campaign for the latter as the UK would have the technology and capacity to turn to alternative nuclear fuel which has little carbon foot-print.

The money promised at the Copenhagen meeting by the UK to fund forest conservation in developing countries should instead be used to compensate local coal miners when their mines are closed. Those extreme NGOs who campaign for excluding palm oil in food products should rethink their strategy. Shouldn’t the campaign be directed at closing coal mines in the UK as the mines will never be certified sustainable and coal is better stored where it exists deep underground and not burnt as fuel to cause global warming. Closing coal mines in the UK is more acceptable as miners who are out of job can obtain social benefits whereas stopping poor farmers from producing palm oil will cause starvation and related miseries. For this reason, most of our local environmental NGOs are supportive of sustainable expansion of the oil palm industry, provided that the benefits are distributed equitably to local communities where the plantations are established. If the local NGOs in Malaysia and Indonesia are not against oil palm cultivation , why then are foreign NGOs taking an anti-palm oil stance?

Earning the right to trade

It is immoral to block the import and use of palm oil in the EU . There is certainly no justification to do so. If palm oil is a legitimate agricultural produce and countries such as Malaysia have provided sufficient amount of forest reserves for purposes of conserving biodiversity, habitats of the orang utans and mitigating global warming, then palm oil has earned its right to trade. How can palm oil be rejected when it was the British who established major oil palm plantations in Malaysia just as they later established rapeseed farms at home in the last few decades. Why should these plantations be required to be certified sustainable when rapeseed, soyabean or olive oil produced in the developed countries are given preferential treatment even though they are not sustainably produced.

Massive deforestation is not due to oil palm cultivation

Recent campaigns for e.g. against Kit-Kat makes a mockery of the sensibility and rationality in handling an issue. A multi-ingredient raw material usage product like Kit -Kat will not be able to ensure that all the ingredients used are from certified sustainable sources. Singling out palm oil for it to be sustainable is unfair and punitive to the palm oil trade. If palm oil as an ingredient in a food product is needed to be certified sustainable, why are the other ingredients not required to do so.? The use of rapeseed or soyabean oil or sugar in such products leads to far more deforestation and global warming. In the last twenty years soya bean planting in Argentina, Brazil and the USA and rapeseed planting in Canada and Europe involved at least 60 million hectares of land expansion, most of which caused massive deforestation. The world planting of oil palm over the last 100 years has only amounted to less than 15 million hectares and the countries involved still have generous amount of permanent forest left for maintaining biodiversity and sequestering CO2.

Losers and winners

Eventually trade restrictions against palm oil into Europe will cause the EU to develop a distorted biofuel policy that will promote the least sustainable and most expensive fuels such as local rapeseed and soyabean oils. The extra cost for such a fiasco will have to be borne by the EU public. In the mean time, environmentally friendly fuel such as palm oil will be denied its opportunity to contribute its known environmental benefits in mitigating global warming, while farmers in developing countries are penalised undeservingly by the trade barriers established by the EU and their sponsored environmental NGOs.

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