Malaysian Palm Oil Scheme: More Problems, Fewer Answers

posted by Rainforest Action Network
A Mountain of Palm Oil Being Delivered to a Malaysian Mill. Photo: New York Times

This post was written by Andrew Ng, a RAN ally and committed activist who has spent more than a decade working on forest issues.

What is the future of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)? Clearly the Malaysian palm oil sector — including both industry and government — wants to challenge it with the announcement of its own Malaysian sustainable palm oil scheme.

At face value, the notion of a Malaysian and Indonesian sustainable palm oil initiative appears positive. A national standard for any sector should represent progress, right? Especially since it’s being spearheaded by government.

But given the track record, can we believe that Malaysia’s government will ensure their scheme is as credible as the RSPO?

Let’s look for clues in the only other national standard created by Malaysia: the Malaysian Timber Certification Council (MTCC). Born of similar circumstances, Malaysia introduced MTCC to shut up the pesky environmental and social NGOs critical of Malaysia’s unsustainable forestry policy that was displacing Indigenous communities.

The response? It was greeted with great NGO scepticism. The NGOs that were critical of the MTCC essentially shut the door on the process out of frustration that land rights issues weren’t even recognized. Today the MTCC remains without any credible NGO support and is still challenged by stakeholders on the same issues brought to light with the recently announced Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification scheme.

Right now, NGOs from Malaysia and the Netherlands continue to challenge the claims of the MTCC at the Dutch timber procurement body. The evidence compiled by the NGOs reveals the truth on the ground, exposing the bogus claims of the MTCC.

Now, in an almost identical scenario, the Malaysian government and palm oil industry is launching its own sustainable palm oil scheme. It gives me little confidence that this story will be any different.

A Malaysian standard will be adopted, but we can’t expect stakeholder participation. Facing critical NGOs through consultation and dialogue will not be part of the industry or government’s due diligence process. After all, P. Gunasegaran of The Star decried the democratic arrangements of RSPO’s Board. His central argument was that it’s unfortunate producers do not have total control over the RSPO process.

Malaysia Palm Oil Council Greenwash
Malaysia Palm Oil Council Greenwash

Given Malaysia’s shoddy track record, should we deem its looming palm oil certification scheme credible?

Malaysia’s palm oil bloc has managed to build up quite a reputation for itself through a series of embarrassing censures in the media. From the recent BBC/NBC/CNN scandal involving PR firm FBC back to the 2007 criticism of MPOC by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the recurring theme is grossly misleading claims.

Interestingly enough, none of this has stopped industry apologists from continuing to take shots across the bow at NGOs. Case in point: the Minister of Primary Commodities Bernard Dompok, whose allegations that the RSPO “moves the goalposts” to purposely disadvantage producers is ridiculous. I fail to see how the deferment of RSPO’s 2005 deforestation deadline to producers’ advantage fits into the Minister’s reckoning.

P. Gunasegaran wildly claims: “Malaysia has officially stopped clearing virgin forests.” FALSE! While there is little natural forest remaining in Malaysia, the rest of its forests are under severe threat of conversion to palm oil plantations, as has been well-documented by NGOs, especially in Sarawak. Gunasegaran also asserts that Greenpeace’s claims that orang utan habitat is being cleared is “not entirely correct.” He fails to substantiate and rebut the Greenpeace reports but tries to play up the nationalist card.

These recent developments, on the heels of IOI Group’s defiance of the RSPO, means that the announcement of a Malaysian scheme certainly raises an eyebrow.

Andrew Ng
Andrew Ng

About the author:

As half of Grassroots, a socially conscious consulting firm, Andrew has been involved in the IOI Corp–Long Teran Kanan conflict working with NGOs and community members to engage stakeholders and campaign in order to find a resolution. Andrew has 13 years of experience working with WWF and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) on policy work, research, campaigning and engaging the agribusiness sector. With experience on RSPO and forest certification issues, some of his recent work includes efforts to highlight Indigenous peoples’ rights problems in the forestry sector. Andrew believes that we need a strong NGO sector to balance society and ensure social justice.