November 23, 2017

An EU ban on Malaysian Palm Oil Products may well be Necessary

An EU ban on Malaysian Palm Oil Products may well be Necessary

Oil palm cultivation has been a boon to businesses in Malaysia but has been a disaster to the country's environment. Photo Credit: Pixabay

Let Melaka’s Chief Minister Idris Haron tell you, and not only are oil palm plantations not harmful to the environment; they are positively helpful. Touting the alleged successes of the state’s green policy recently, Idris stressed that the European Union is badly mistaken in planning to ban imports of palm oil from Malaysia over environmentally destructive practices.

“They (European politicians) don’t know that we cleared the forests and plant oil palm which is also green and able to produce oxygen,” the chief minister said at a media conference. In other words, oil palms are plants themselves so they can’t be harmful to the environment.

Deforestation by palm oil cultivators has scarred landscapes in forested areas across Borneo. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This argument sounds like misguided sophistry to us. No one is disputing that oil palms, like all plants, suck carbon dioxide out of the air and releases oxygen back into it.

Rather, the problem with oil palm cultivation is that large swathes of forest have been cut down and are being cut down to make way for endless stretches of oil palms, a foreign species imported decades ago from Africa. These forests were once home to thriving ecosystems which are now gone. Oil palm plantations do have their own ecosystems, of course, but they are largely artificial creations that pale in comparison with the natural bounty that abounds in virgin forests.

Malaysian politicians, from Prime Minister Najib Razak on down, have decried the forthcoming EU ban on Malaysian palm oil as unacceptable interference into the country’s internal affairs. Business leaders have been no less stinging in their criticisms. Carl Bek-Nielsen, CEO of United Plantations Bhd, has for one lambasted the EU over its proposed ban, which would include imports of biofuels as well from Malaysia. “[T]he EU is building more trade barriers and it must stop this crop apartheid,” the businessman thundered.

Such anger is understandable. Palm oil production accounts for a considerable share of Malaysia’s exports, and the European Union is the country’s second second-largest export market, after India. Together with neighboring Indonesia, Malaysia accounts for 82% of global palm oil production.

Bornean orangutans have been losing out to palm oil plantations in Sarawak and Sabah. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Each year people within the European Union consume 7 million tons of palm oil products, most of which comes from Malaysia and Indonesia. If a European ban on Malaysian palm oil products does come into effect, the country is set to lose up to RM10 billion in annual exports. That will hurt the country’s palm oil companies, which employ hundreds of thousands of local Malaysians, many of whom, too, may fall on hard times as a result.

Yet the EU does have a point. Oil palm cultivation in Malaysia has wreaked havoc with the nation’s natural environment. Huge tracts of forests have been felled and numerous species have been driven to the edge of extinction in the wild all because of palm oil production. Malaysian politicians and oil palm cultivators alike have long been paying lip service to engaging in more environmentally friendly practices. Thus far, however, they have largely failed to follow through on their promises.

Malaysian agricultural conglomerates wield enormous financial and political clout. Based on their track record, they seem far more concerned about their own short-term financial interests than about the long-term health of the country’s wondrous yet fragile natural environment. Perhaps an EU ban on Malaysian palm oil will finally serve as a wake-up call to these business by hurting them where it hurts them most: their pockets.

Perhaps Malaysian companies will finally start acting in far more environmentally friendly manners . . . not because they want to do so but because they will be forced to do so.


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