Malaysia Struggles With Its Dubious Reputation for Palm Oil

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CC BY 3.0. Uwe Aranas/Wikimedia

It resents the world for criticizing the industry, yet understands that some things need to change.

Malaysia is not happy with how the rest of the world perceives its biggest export – palm oil. Although protests against the rapid deforestation of rainforests to make way for palm oil plantations have been ongoing for years (and we've been writing about palm oil's devastating impact on TreeHugger for just as long), it has only become a mainstream environmental topic in the last several years.

Palm oil cultivation requires the eradication of old-growth rainforest. This is often done by burning down the trees, triggering long-lasting wildfires and peat fires that contribute to air pollution. The plantations themselves are vast monocrops that are no replacement for the original habitats of countless endangered animals, including Sumatran and Borneo pygmy elephants, Sumatran rhinos and tigers, and orangutans.

The European Union passed a law earlier this year that will phase out the use of palm oil in biofuels by 2030, citing it as unsustainable. This has resulted in both Malaysia and Indonesia, the two biggest palm oil producers worldwide, threatening to raise a World Trade Organisation challenge, as the negative attitude toward palm oil could impact millions of jobs and billions of dollars in earnings.

It's getting so bad that Malaysia even says it is taking action against an international school within its own borders for anti-palm oil propaganda. In the words of Primary Industries minister Teresa Kok, the school was "promoting 'hateful thoughts' toward the palm oil industry." Reuters reports:

"Authorities said they would take action against an international school under education laws after a video, which was circulated widely this week on social media, showed students talking on stage about the decrease in the number of orangutan due to the production of palm oil."

The secretary general at the Ministry of Education said the students' involvement "in propaganda activities are in direct conflict with national policy and can affect the good name of the country."

It's not the first time that criticism of the industry has been censored. Another video (possibly the same one shown at the international school?) made by Greenpeace and narrated by Emma Thompson was blocked by UK television networks around Christmas last year for being "too political," despite plenty of evidence that the portrayal of habitat destruction in the film was accurate.

Despite its blustering, Malaysia must be paying attention because it did halt expansion of palm oil plantations earlier this year, citing negative sentiment and bad image. Minister Kok said in March that "we are responding to a lot of accusations and rectifying it" and that "Malaysia will focus on boosting productivity and yields of existing palm trees." So protests clearly do work.

Malaysia's panic is understandable, as it relies on palm oil to keep its economy afloat, but perhaps its focus should be less on stifling criticism and more on understanding what the world's concerns are. Some experts have argued that an outright boycott of palm oil isn't the best thing, that other vegetable oils would be substituted for it that cause even greater environmental harm.

The discussion should shift instead toward sustainable production – and making what's already being grown a gentler, greener product. Stopping expansion is an excellent first step, and Kok has said the country strives to certify all its producers as 'sustainable' by the end of the year – but that seems suspiciously ambitious for such a vast industry. Third-party certification is certainly required to make that believable claim but, if valid, could go a long way toward improving palm oil's global reputation.