Two recent reports, from environmental NGOs Fern and Forest Trends, highlighted that European demand for commodities including palm oil, beef, soy and leather may contribute to illegal deforestation, including in Malaysia.
The Fern report claims that 18% of all palm oil imported into the EU stems from illegal deforestation, and it makes specific claims about the amount of Malaysian palm oil imports from illegally deforested land, in terms of value (€550m) and area (130,000 ha), citing earlier work by Forest Trends.
However, the MPOC said the work was “plagued with problems”.
“The Forest Trends report claims that 43 per cent of palm oil plantations have been established illegally,” it said. “To arrive at this claim, the author takes a 'measured average' of illegality of plantation establishment in Cambodia, PNG and Borneo and halves it. This is despite all three countries having completely different land tenure and legal systems. In other words, there is no genuine attempt to distinguish – let alone measure – possible levels of legal or regulatory breaches.”
‘Lack of sufficient data’
Fern told FoodNavigator it stood by its figures and Forest Trends’ methodology, but added it would welcome efforts to produce more precise findings.
“Ideally the global estimate would have been produced by simply adding up the relative contribution of each country with tropical forest, but this was not possible because of lack of sufficient data on which to make a national-level assessment,” it said.
The MPOC added that Malaysian government had been praised by the United Nations, among others, for a commitment to retain at least 50% of its land area as forest. “The insinuation in this report that Malaysia is happily and mercilessly deforesting is manifestly false.”
In addition, the Fern report claimed the Malaysian system for dealing with land rights claims was corrupt and added: “The few such cases which have been concluded have found in favour of the local communities which brought them,” – a situation that the MPOC said underlined the independence of the Malaysian legal system.
“Every country worldwide will experience land disputes: the key is that they are properly considered and administered,” it said.
British smear campaign?
The MPOC also accused the NGOs – and the British government, which co-financed the Forest Trends report through its Forest Markets Governance and Climate programme – of conducting a smear campaign against Malaysian palm oil producers.
The UK government programme is intended to improve forest management, but the MPOC calls it a form of ‘green colonialism’ that acts as a protectionist measure for European vegetable oil producers.
“Rather than actually trying to improve forest governance where it's needed, it is actively discouraging the purchase of commodities from developing countries – such as palm oil – across the board,” it said.
Both Fern and Forest Trends have denied this allegation.
Fern told this publication: “It is clear that by co-financing this research the UK Government is not engaged in ‘a smear campaign against Malaysia’, which hardly features in the report anyway. In fact the UK Government had no say in the production of this report in any way, shape or form.”
The MPOC does not deny that some palm oil production could be linked to illegal deforestation in Malaysia, but accuses the NGOs of ‘cherry-picking’ data in a way that distorts the scale of the problem.