Malaysia: Malaysia is promoting its controversial palm oil industry as a model of eco-friendliness, but activists warn forests are still being destroyed to make way for vast plantations.
As palm oil prices boom, Malaysia has mounted a campaign to counter allegations that the crop is responsible for habitat destruction, air pollution from slash-and-burn farming, and pushing orangutans towards extinction.
It insists palm oil is only grown on legal agricultural land and that criticisms are an attempt by competitors in Europe and the US to undermine growing demand for the commodity. But environmentalists say that while virgin rainforests are now off-limits, tracts designated as “secondary forests”, which are also valuable habitats teeming with wildlife, are not being spared.
Junaidi Payne from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said the government’s stance is misleading and that the race to fulfil demand for palm oil risks causing further deforestation, both legal and illegal.
“It is actually a red herring to say that Malaysia does not convert rainforests to oil palm plantations,” Payne said.
He said that in the past 25 years, previously virgin forests which have been partially logged were downgraded to secondary forests, which are then deemed to be legal agriculture land.
“What bothers me is the current sustained price of crude palm oil,” he said.
“The success of palm oil production will have an impact on forest conservation as more land is set aside to cultivate the crop.”
The charismatic orangutan, the flagship species for the forest conservation drive, is found only in Borneo—which is shared between Indonesia and Malaysia—and Indonesia’s Sumatra island.
The gentle animal is now threatened with extinction due to a loss of natural habitat, say experts who point out that most of Malaysia’s orangutans live in secondary forests.
The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) has vigorously fended off the allegations, pointing out that 60% of Malaysia’s land mass is forested, while agriculture occupies just 19%.
“Every country has the right to develop 30% of their forest land to agriculture. So what is the issue?” MPOC chief executive officer Yusof Basiron said.
The adverse public opinion poses a threat to an industry, which last year earned Malaysia $14.1 billion (Rs56,400 crore) in exports, a 42% jump from 2006.
Malaysia and Indonesia have pledged to carry out joint research to counter anti-palm oil “propaganda” that jeopardizes the lucrative industry.
“We will present accurate facts to all those who are against palm oil, whether for economic reasons, or due to concerns over global warming or because they are agents to palm oil competitors,” said Malaysian plantation industries and commodities minister Peter Chin.