What Daily Telegraph Readers Should Read

This letter which is now published as an open letter to readers was sent by MPOC to the editor of Daily Telegraph in response to The Great Ape Scandal article.

The Great Ape Scandal article in the Daily Telegraph, January 21, 2006

Contrary to the impressions given by Mr. Stanley Johnson in his article, orang utan remains Malaysia’s favourite animal, and every effort has been taken by the Malaysian Government to protect the environment and the orang utan.

Most environmental issues stem from the premise that the expansion of oil palm plantations are harmful to the environment, and as the article suggests destroys the natural habitat of the orang utans, as a result of deforestation. These prejudiced views often arise from trade rivalry, which would see interested parties benefiting from the sensationalism of palm oil; and, in this case, misinformation. In Malaysia, the expansion of oil palm plantations over the last decade in fact came from conversion of other economic crops, namely rubber, cocoa and coconut, while the balance came from logged-over forest of areas zoned for agriculture.

Comprehensive laws and acts concerning the environment are in place and enforced strictly by Malaysia’s Department of Environment (DOE) and its environmental scientists. Particular emphasis is given for developments where there may be endangered species or biodiversity needing protection. An Environmental Impact Assessment conducted by experts in relevant fields is mandatory for all developments or changes in agricultural land use exceeding 500 hectares, and the assessment report is available to all interested parties for reviews and objections.

Changes in Area of Selected Plantation Tree Crops in Malaysia

Year

Oil Palm
(Million ha)
Rubber
(Million ha)
Cocoa
(Million ha)
Coconut
(Million ha)
Total
(Million ha)
1990
2.029
1.836
0.393
0.134
4.572
2000
3.377
1.431
0.076
0.159
5.043
2002
3.670
1.348
0.051
0.155
5.224
2003
3.802
1.320
0.045
0.153
5.320
2004
3.880
1.282
0.044
0.147
5.353

Source: Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities, Ministry of Agriculture, MRB, MCB and MPOB

Malaysia does not have vast expanses of land available for development. Expansion in new plantations has slowed down as good agricultural land becomes increasingly scarce. Although there may be plenty of cleared and abandoned land, it is not always suitable for development and, therefore, replanting is being actively pursued by the Malaysian plantation industry.

The areas planted with oil palm are well within the 6.02 million hectares designated for agriculture under the Third Malaysian Agricultural Plan. Indeed if not for such conversion and development, or if not for the high intrinsic productivity of oil palm plantations, as rightly pointed out by Mr. Johnson, much more land formerly gazetted under forest would have been lost to the rural population aspiring for better standards of living. To date, the total land area in Malaysia is 32.86 million hectares of which 20.90 million hectares or 64% is still retained under forest cover, and together with the perennial tree crops make up 80.2% of the total cover under tree crop. Very few once-forested countries can claim likewise. It is interesting to note that less than 13% of Malaysia’s total land area is planted with oil palms.

As the world’s main palm oil producer, Malaysia is aware of the need to meet consumers’ requirements worldwide. As a result of years of research and development, a single hectare of oil palm can now produce about 3.5 – 4.0 tonnes of palm oil per year with best fields giving 7-8 tonnes; far more productive than other oil seed crops. Combining such natural efficiency and a productive lifespan of 25-30 years ensures the world a sustainable and steady supply of the essential food for human diet. In essence, oil palm through its high productivity has produced more oil and enriched the diet of more of the world’s poor and undernourished by occupying the least land as compared to other major vegetable oil crops.

Oil Palm Is Biologically Superior To Other Oilseed Crops In Terms Of Efficiency In Land Use And Productivity

Oil Crop
Production (mil tonnes)
% of Global Production
Average Oil Yield (t/ha/year)
Total Area (mil ha)
% Area
Soybean
33.47
31.72
0.36
92.54
42.6
Sunflower
9.65
9.14
0.46
21.17
9.75
Rapeseed
15.93
15.10
0.60
26.59
12.24
Oil Palm
33.52
31.77
3.66
9.16
4.22
Total
105.53c
217.22a

Source: Oil World 2005
a,c only for the 7 major oils

For Malaysia, agriculture in general and palm oil in particular, is the backbone of the country’s development, especially in the rural area, and political stability. It provides direct employment to 570,000 people, not including the support industries and spin-off activities. Established in 1956, The Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) for example is tasked with reducing rural poverty through land development and promotion of economically viable crops. Today, with its proven track record, FELDA is widely recognized as a model for poverty eradication, a concept that is supported by the World Bank and the United Nations.

As one of Malaysia’s major crops and revenue earner, oil palm cultivation will continue to be important as the country pragmatically pursues multiple sources of economic well being such as plantation agriculture, manufacturing industry, services and natural resources. The country has long put into place guidelines, research, and industrial and environmental standards that provide a safe, high quality trans free oil in a manner that supports the local economy, preserves the environmental resource base and is economically viable. Practices are constantly reviewed to ensure that best agricultural and management practices evolve in line with new research findings and international standards.

The article failed to mention that the Malaysian oil palm industry is the prime mover for the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to reinforce responsible development and maintenance of plantations already widely being practiced here. The RSPO is a multi-stakeholder non-profit organization established in Zurich, Switzerland in April, 2004 with the primary objective of the promotion and use of sustainable palm oil through co-operation within the supply chain and open dialogue with its stakeholders. As at end February, 2006, RSPO has 117 members comprising 84 Ordinary Members representing key players in the supply chain and 33 Affiliate Members. More information is available from www.sustainable-palmoil.org .

Many major plantation companies worldwide including Malaysian-based companies have joined as ordinary or affiliate members and it is likely that wide-scale support will be received for this initiative. A significant milestone was reached by the RSPO when its members ratified the Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil Production at the 2nd RSPO General Assembly held in November, 2005 in Singapore. The Principles and Criteria (P&C) provide the foundation for the production of sustainable palm oil that takes into consideration long term economic viability, and environmental protection and conservation.

The industry is attentive towards the views and concerns of the consumers and is promoting RSPO initiatives and best practices to improve productivity and efficiency with minimal impact on the environment as raised by Mr. Johnson. Hopefully, these will increase consumers’ confidence in the sustainability of palm oil produced and the high productivity will minimize the new areas of land required to meet the world’s increasing need for edible oils. In turn, the consumers will boost the income levels, standards of living and economies of the many people in the rural areas that rely on the crop for their livelihood.

The Malaysian oil palm industry has been responsible and has responded vigorously to environmental issues in the past. It will continue to respond similarly to known needs for biodiversity conservation and other environmental concerns and will work actively with its stakeholders to allay all fears of the consumers as demonstrated in RSPO discussions. It therefore looks forward to address the concerns of the environmentalists in a constructive manner and hopes to realize a rational balanced view of the benefits of conservation of the environment and the biodiversity including the orang utan and the cultivation of oil palm, devoid of any sensationalism and hype.

Pictures of the so-called orang utan habitat being replaced by rows of oil palm trees published with the article may move readers’ emotions and increase readership and keep donations to the NGOs flowing, but this will not necessarily help towards conservation efforts. These pictures are made possible as the palm trees live where other crops and vegetations have left. Yet, there is another story that needs to be told to the readers of the great pains being taken by the Malaysian oil palm industry that enjoys no government subsidies yet has successfully competed with highly protected farmers in the United States and Europe to conserve biodiversity in and around the oil palm plantations, and most importantly to maintain a balance between industrial, social, economic needs and protection of the environment.

In dealing with issues such as ‘environment’ it is extremely critical to have multiple perspectives on any areas in question. The article appears to be in poor taste with an anti palm oil group using fear-based rhetoric to scare and gain sympathy from the public, and the media seizes upon such opportunities to further undermine the credibility of the palm oil industry. Too often, the views portrayed have been one-sided. Shouldn’t the industry also be consulted to ensure a balanced opinion for the public to judge and decide?

We would like to impress that orang utan is a Malaysian treasure and as its guardian we urge others to stop exploiting this beautiful and loveable creature that had captured the hearts and minds of millions of people around the world as the 1998 Commonwealth Games mascot. Let us instead work together and focus on the efforts for conservation and protection of the much loved animal, the orang utan.


The official mascot of the 1998 Commonwealth Games was “Wira” the Orang Utan.

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