A National Palm Oil Scheme Towards Landscape Conservation
by Robert Hii
Palm oil, the cursed fruit or blessed fruit depending on who you ask, epitomizes the global struggle to find a balance between development and conservation. Widely grown in the tropical countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, the crop has become synonymous with the disappearance of wildlife habitats as ancient forests are replaced with the palm oil tree as far as the eye can see.
The projected growth of the need for vegetable oils to meet the needs of a booming human population is leading to the expansion of palm oil plantations into undeveloped areas including Papua New Guinea and Africa where some of the world’s last remaining primary forests remain. Other vegetable oil crops, notably soy, is further threatening South American landscapes as the two competing vegetable oils struggle for market share.
There is no shortage of bad news for conservation as reports from Australia all the way to the Everglades in Florida talk about the loss of ecology to economy? Can the palm oil industries afford the costs of sustainable practices when the biggest influencers are not conservationists but soy from the Americas and investors worldwide who will punish poor financial performance?
These are some of the challenges facing the Malaysian palm oil industry as the government seeks to certify all of its local production as sustainable.
Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO)
Introduced in 2015 as a way to prove that the country’s palm oil production is sustainable, the MSPO was subsequently made mandatory as a national scheme. External influences aside, the scheme is further challenged by internal factors including state driven economic goals and competing industries in timber. Even the 650,000 small farmers of palm oil which are being presented as impoverished farmers finding a solution towards empowerment by farming palm oil, are a problem for certification as many of these are illiterate and may not be able to fulfil the rigorous reporting required by the MSPO.
The government has allocated $40 million to facilitate the certification of small and medium sized growers to assist them towards certification. This may help the palm oil industry gain certification but it does not necessarily mean that positive actions for conservation will follow. If we look at the most recognized certification bodies in sustainable palm oil for example, the RSPO and the ISCC which certifies member or client operations. These selected operations are rendered quite meaningless if surrounded by uncertified plantations whether its timber or rice. As recent studies have shown, isolated patches of HCVs will not preserve biodiversity for perpetuity which has to be the goal of any sustainable product.
Landscape Plans Needed for National Certification Schemes
What Malaysia needs to do is to create a complete plan for land use in order to create long term conservation impact. The palm oil industry complains often that demands for sustainability certification is unfair when competing vegetable oils like soy or rapeseed do not face similar demands. As a crop that has been identified as most suitable to meet global demand and most likely to be grown in forested developing countries instead of soy, the industries whether in Malaysia or Gabon or Papua have an ethical obligation to show responsible use of landscapes.
Creating a national landscape use plan in Malaysia should be relatively simple. Enough research has gone into biodiversity in Malaysia that one could simply pull up these reports and confirm key areas in need of protection to ensure survival of flora and fauna plus target areas to make sure they not only survive, but thrive.
Examples of these are the Central Forest Spine in West Malaysia and the Heart of Borneo areas in Malaysian Borneo. It would be a gargantuan task to gather all stakeholders in state governments and industries but the benefits of such a plan are just as big. This nationwide plan for sustainable land use would go a long way towards the credibility of not only the MSPO but Malaysia’s compliance with international standards for certified timber.