Time for a palm-oil rethink 

Malaysia and Indonesia’s trade ministers have said they will “discuss and coordinate” palm oil export issues, including organising a joint mission to the EU. 

But it is time for the palm oil plantations to reassess the way they operate before they choke the region with acrid smoke again in August and September.

The Asean pair, which together produce 90 per cent of the world’s palm oil, plan to raise the prospect of European Union barriers on imports of palm oil with the World Trade Organisation.

A resolution by the European Parliament in April said that by 2020 the use of vegetable oils in biodiesel that were produced in an unsustainable way, leading to deforestation, should be phased out.

The resolution covers palm oil: a key export for Indonesia and Malaysia.

It is a human instinct to become combative in the face of external opposition but, in reality, the sector’s slash and burn practices must end.

The joint statement said the EU resolution, as well as the unfair labelling practices by the private sector in the bloc, would hit the income of millions of smallholders.

The palm oil industry has been accused of causing large-scale deforestation and a smoke crisis every year due to burning being used as a cheap way to clear land.

Rather than collecting and composting last season’s waste matter, a practice as old as human civilisation, operators cut costs with bonfires.

As a consequence, millions suffer respiratory problems, the environment gets throttled by an unwanted influx of filth and Singapore, the region’s financial hub, becomes a no-go zone. During the “haze” crises, the Lion City’s reputation for cleanliness verging on sterility is replaced for an association with hacking coughs, sore throats and stinging eyes because of the actions of Indonesian and Malaysian farmers.

But 2016 did see a marked improvement in the region’s air quality.

Jakarta was ready to prevent a repeat of the haze crisis, said Singapore’s Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli last week.

He said he received assurances from provincial and national figures in Indonesia.

“We have already seen good results last year that there was little haze that came to Singapore and I complimented the efforts the government [and] President Jokowi who… personally carried out meetings with the various apparatus of the government, locally and nationally to ensure the recurrence of the haze that happened in 2015 does not happen again,” said Masagos, referring to Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo.

The minister also met senior figures from Palembang in South Sumatra province to reaffirm Singapore’s commitment and cooperation with Indonesia in addressing environmental challenges.

France is also adding to the pressure on the farmers.

Paris said earlier this month it would move to restrict the use of palm oil in producing biofuels, which Malaysia described as discriminatory, adding that it would review its trade with France.

France’s position was hurting bilateral relations, Malaysian Palm Oil Board chairman Ahmad Hamzah said.

“French attacks are uncalled for and misguided. France should be cherishing 60 years of diplomatic relations with Malaysia,” the trade boss said.

France’s Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot recently said he would block the use of palm oil in biofuels to stop “imported deforestation”, blaming unsustainable production of soybean and palm oil for impeding economic development in Latin America and Asean.

The Avril Group, Europe’s largest biodiesel producer, uses French rapeseed as its main input for biodiesel.

Avril CEO Jean-Philippe Puig reportedly said his company supported all initiatives to ban the use of palm oil in biodiesel.

“Why is France vehemently attacking palm oil and undermining the opportunity for many families here to earn a decent living?” Ahmad told the media.

His sense of moral outrage would have more credibility if the trade was not responsible for destroying huge swathes of some of the world’s oldest and tallest rain forests and driving numerous species to the brink of extinction.

“Palm oil is a strategic commodity and the oil palm is a miracle crop,” he said. Palm oil exports provided Malaysian farmers a path out of poverty, Ahmad said.

The Indonesian palm oil association said it feared other EU members would follow France’s lead.

In 2015, fires from land burning in Indonesia’s Kalimantan and Sumatra led to the worst transboundary smog crisis on record, pushing Indonesia to the verge of a national emergency.

The haze sparked widespread efforts by the government to prevent and suppress land and forest fires early and these kept the number of hot spots in Indonesia low in 2016. Observers have, however, said favourable weather conditions could also have helped last year.

The Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries, a joint initiative by Malaysia and Indonesia to coordinate when managing stockpiles and supporting prices, would lead the response, the joint statement by the trade ministers said.

“Malaysia and Indonesia will consider taking this issue to the WTO if the resolution becomes an EU directive and discriminatory in nature,” Malaysia’s International Trade and Industry Ministry announced.

Rather than fighting the EU and rushing to global trade bodies like the WTO, both Indonesia and Malaysia need to regulate palm oil producers, educate them in the consequences of burning and deforestation and prosecute operators who persist in poisoning Asean’s air.

Filthy air in Singapore in June 2013. Picture credit: Flickr