Michael Gonchar’s science lesson plans – ‘Endangered Orangutans and the Palm Oil Industry: An Environmental Science Case Study’ – was published on Nov 9 in the New York Times. In it, he presents students with ‘an environmental quandary to discuss and debate — a case study about the best way to protect [the orang utan], given the wave of deforestation shrinking their natural habitat in Southeast Asia’.

In the Going Further section, he suggests ideas for action to be responsible consumers, as well as ‘researching other environmental and human costs of palm oil production, and weighing the economic benefits of a multibillion-dollar industry against its costs’.

We generally agree with his statement that ‘there’s an argument to be made against all-out palm oil boycotts’. We thank him for calling attention to the need for more education.

The best solution for protecting Malaysia’s wildlife and rainforests is to support stronger standards and to beef up enforcement of legislation. One way to do this is by supporting the global use of certified sustainable palm oil, produced in compliance with stringent laws protecting wildlife, the environment and the livelihood of small farmers.

Until recent years, most of the palm oil used in the US was sustainably produced in Malaysia, a recognised leader in responsible production. The Malaysian government and palm oil industry are committed to maintaining our market share over other producers by choosing the certified sustainability and non-conflict routes. These actions have a strong potential of disengagement from many negative environmental practice perceptions currently associated with the industry.

As Gonchar notes, some oil palm cultivation has resulted in the conversion of forests in producer countries. The Malaysian case is often taken as a point for more positive reference in the development of the industry. Oil palm plantations occupy only legal, properly-zoned agricultural land. Environment Impact Assessment studies are required to avoid high-conservation value areas.

High-yielding trees produce oil-rich fruit for more than 25 years before needing to be replaced. And when it is time to replant, open burning is not allowed. Much of Malaysia’s forest land remains protected, and current national forest cover has been acknowledged at nearly 56% of the total land area. At the 1992 Earth Summit, Malaysia had pledged to keep at least half of its land under forest cover. It has kept that promise despite becoming a major global palm oil producer.

Malaysia’s oil palm plantations are actually carbon sinks that are efficient at absorbing carbon dioxide. While the media and persons such as Gonchar are critical of our practices, can they truly equate such measures in many Western countries including the US and Canada?

Wildlife conservation
The orang utan is not native to Peninsular Malaysia. Most of Malaysia’s nearly 13,000 orang utan in the states of Sabah and Sarawak live on the island of Borneo’s protected forests. The wildlife and forestry authorities in these states have taken necessary measures, so now the wild population lives mostly inside the protected area.

However human-animal conflict still occurs, and we are ramping up efforts to ensure that the precious orang utan remains protected – the penalty for endangering these animals now includes imposition of a hefty fine along with a possible jail term for all offenders.

Gonchar questions the wisdom of palm oil industry-supported wildlife protection efforts. He must also wise up to the fact that conservation efforts need adequate funding, including the need for strong enforcement on the ground. While he may be critical about funding from the palm oil industry, in reality our funding has helped to create a much needed balance.

For example, we are actively funding the Wildlife Rescue Unit in Sabah. The two dozen rangers are on patrol 24/7, responding to all sorts of calls and emergencies, including difficult elephant translocations to ensure these animals are not in harm’s way. Maybe the likes of Gonchar and the New York Times should similarly consider funding collaboration, rather than merely talk about it.


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