European Moves to Restrict Palm Oil Have Enraged Malaysia and Indonesia
By Joe Sandler Clarke
"Don't expect us to continue buying European products," Malaysia's former plantations minister Mah Siew Keong told reporters in January last year. His comments came just after he had accused the EU of "practising a form of crop apartheid."
A few months later Luhut Pandjaitan, an Indonesian government minister close to President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo, warned his country would retaliate if it was "cornered" by the EU.
In the past two years the European Commission and several European countries have weighed up plans to restrict imports of palm oil amid growing concern about the environmental impact of the crop. But the world's biggest producers launched an aggressive diplomatic pushback, threatening to cancel deals worth billions for everything from salmon to fighter jets.
Groups backed by the Malaysian government launched social media campaigns against European government officials and a well-known supermarket, at the same time.
Unearthed has pieced together the story of the diplomatic spat through conversations with stakeholders, politicians and official emails.
Palm oil is a cheap and versatile vegetable oil, derived from the oil palm tree that grows easily in the tropics. It has seeped into everything over the last two decades, from chocolate bars to jet fuel.
In the 20 years from 1995 to 2015, global palm oil production increased from 15.2 million tons to 62.6 million tons. It's been estimated that 50 percent of all packaged goods sold in western supermarkets contain palm oil.
Some conservationists say palm oil is a good alternative to other environmentally unfriendly crops, because it uses less land than other vegetable oils.
However, its environmental impact on Indonesia and Malaysia, which together produce about 85 percent of the world's palm oil, has been marked; contributing to a big increase in deforestation in both countries. Today, Indonesia is the world's fifth biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, mainly due to land use change. According to Global Forest Watch, from 2001 to 2017 the country lost 24.4 million hectares (Mha) of tree cover, equivalent to 2.44 gigatons of CO₂ emissions. Malaysia lost 7.29Mha of tree cover in the same period.
A study published in February last year in the journal Cell Biology found that 150,000 Borneo orangutans were lost between 1999 and 2015, partly as a result of the expansion of the palm oil trade. The IUCN states that 193 critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable animals — including African forest elephants and chimpanzees — are directly threatened by palm oil.
As well as the obvious environmental disruption, the dramatic growth of the palm oil sector has reshaped the political and economic systems of both Malaysia and Indonesia.
Today palm oil exports make up between 5 percent and 7 percent of GDP in both countries. Helena Varkkey, a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Malaya, explains that over the last two decades "palm oil has become intrinsically linked to development in Malaysia, both as a vehicle for economic growth and as a way for the state to get smallholder farmers out of poverty."
Varkkey says the growth of the industry in southeast Asia has created a powerful and well-connected political lobby, backed up by nationalistic pride and an ideological commitment to the crop.
Diplomatic pressure from Malaysia and Indonesia intensified at the start of last year, when MEPs voted to phase-out palm oil in biofuels from counting towards the EU's new renewable energy guidelines, which will take effect in 2020.
These rules pose a particular problem to palm oil companies, because a decade or so ago analysts predicted a glowing future for biofuels. In 2010 the EU drafted its first renewable energy directive, setting clean energy rules and targets for member states, and providing an incentive for member states to switch to palm oil-based biodiesel for cars.
In anticipation, palm oil producers stepped up production and created new plantations. These plantations have now reached maturity, but with scientists and legislators increasingly aware of the environmental impact of crops like palm oil, the expected biofuels boom has not materialized, leaving producers with a mounting oversupply problem.
Chris Malins, a consultant on alternative fuels explains: "The biggest potential growth area for palm oil is fuels. This is a growing industry in the medium and long term, and nothing Europe does will change that, but if we stop layering on additional demand for palm oil in biofuels that will limit those more aggressive demand scenarios."
The vote in the European Parliament set off a major lobbying effort by the Indonesian and Malaysian governments and palm oil interests both in Brussels and in European capitals, as the European Commission deliberated over the final shape of the new green energy rules.
In the UK Indonesian and Malaysian officials appeared to dangle a post-Brexit trade deal in an effort to get the UK to oppose the EU move on palm oil in biofuels, according to government emails from early February 2018.
Foreign Office officials said a few days later that "every minister engaging with Malaysia" should expect to be lobbied on palm oil, including Theresa May, who was due to meet then Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in April 2018. In the end, Razak was unable to attend the event.
British diplomats also feared that the EU fight could torpedo a multi-billion pound deal for Malaysia to replace its aging fighter jet fleet with Eurofighter Typhoon jets manufactured by BAE Systems. And Foreign Office staff complained about both countries putting pressure on diplomats to hit back on a move by Iceland supermarket to remove palm oil from its own-brand goods.
With a number of European countries considering their own moves to limit palm oil imports on environmental reasons, the push-back on the continent was similarly intense.
This January, Malaysia's new-elected premier, Mahathir Bin Mohamed, sent a personal letter to Emmanuel Macron threatening the suspension of free trade talks and "regrettable economic and trade consequences" for €6 billion of French exports, because of the French "de facto ban" on palm oil. In early summer 2018, French politicians moved to cap and progressively phase-out imports of the commodity.
The move came two-and-a-half-years after French politicians scrapped plans for a tax on unsustainable palm oil in 2016 after being warned that passing the law could lead to the execution of a French citizen convicted of drug trafficking in Indonesia, as reported here.
When the Norwegian parliament asked the government to develop measures to exclude biofuels with a high risk of deforestation, both Indonesia and Malaysia tried to hit back.
Mahathir wrote to the Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg in January warning that the country's plan to phase out palm oil from biofuels in 2020 could have "regrettable economic and trade consequences" both for Malaysia's smallholder farmers and for Norway. Malaysia's new primary industries minister, Teresa Kok, warned that free trade negotiations with European Free Trade Association (EFTA) states (which includes Norway, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland) could be "adversely affected."
Art direction: Georgie Johnson. Illustration: Freya Morgan
Speaking to reporters after the signing of the Indonesia-EFTA trade deal in December last year, Indonesian trade minister Enggartiasto Lukita said palm oil had been a major sticking point in negotiations.
Lukita added that he had threatened to leave Norwegian salmon out of the deal if EFTA states restricted access for palm oil. "I said, we've gone a long way. You will benefit from this and I too. So if you don't open up for our palm, let's just forget about this."
The Norwegian government declined to comment when approached by Unearthed.
'Don't Be Like Richard'
These high-level diplomatic spats have been matched by an online campaign established by Malaysia's smallholder associations and Malaysian government agencies targeting the EU, key member states and private companies.
Last spring, after Iceland supermarket announced its high-profile palm oil move, a group called Human Faces of Palm Oil began spreading messages on social media about the company's Executive Director Richard Walker. One video posted on Twitter and YouTube ran with the line: "Richard only wants to attack poor palm oil small farmers in Africa and Asia. Don't be like Richard."
Why Iceland and Mr Walker are wrong about palm oil, in one short video. https://t.co/SpYvoNIaUN— Faces of Palm Oil (@Faces of Palm Oil)1524088665.0
As the Times reported, while Human Faces of Palm Oil describes itself as a platform to tell the stories of Malaysia palm oil smallholders, it was set up by several Malaysian groups, including two government agencies: Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) and the Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority (SALCRA).
The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), an official trade body, is also listed online as one of the groups behind the Human Faces of Palm Oil. MPOC operates from the same physical address as the economic and industry division of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB), a government agency.
MPOC made its presence felt during free trade agreement negotiations in Europe last autumn, when CEO Kalyana Sundram dominated discussions that were supposed to be led by plantations minister Teresa Kok, according to one senior European political figure at the table, who asked to remain anonymous.
"It was weird because this lobbyist was interfering a lot in the discussions," the official explained. "He would say stuff like 'the minister wants to tell you …' or [he would] translate what she had tried to say. I found it peculiar because normally the minister is the boss of the lobbyist but it seemed as if the lobbyist was in charge of the minister."
Neither Kok nor Sundram responded to a request for comment from Unearthed.
Farmers Unite, another online campaign publicly backed by MPOC, launched with three full-page ads in the run-up to Christmas in the London free newspaper City AM, calling on Iceland boss Walker to end his "colonial crusade" against palm oil.
The group's founder Thompson Ayodele wrote a series of op-eds in Asia and west Africa, at the same time, decrying moves in Europe to restrict palm oil imports. Ayodele is the founder of the Nigerian thinktank the Initiative for Public Policy Analysis (IPPA) and in 2015 authored research for Malaysia's Sime Darby Plantation.
The National Association of Smallholders (NASH) is another Malaysian group publicly backing both the Human Faces of Palm Oil and Farmers Unite campaigns. Over the last 12 months, NASH has placed several ads in Politico Europe, a magazine that reaches power brokers in Brussels, denouncing the EU's palm oil policy as "crop apartheid."
Unearthed approached NASH, Thompson Ayodele and MPOC for a comment on this story, but received no response.
Farmers Unite did, however, issue the following tweet.
Last Wednesday, after all the diplomatic wrangling, the European Commission recommended that palm oil should be phased-out from transport fuel on environmental grounds. The EU measure places limits on what types of palm oil biofuels can count towards member states' renewable energy targets.
The Malaysian government called the move a "calculated political act" and threatened to bring a World Trade Organization challenge if it goes ahead.
A statement from the country's foreign ministry read: "Such an aggressive trade barrier targeted at Malaysia's national interests, and our 650,000 small farmers, cannot pass without a strong response."
What’s Worse Than Palm Oil for the Environment? Other Vegetable Oils, IUCN Study Finds https://t.co/Hr1LvfA2FS @RAN @orangutans @opfuk— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1530755705.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate Unearthed.
In celebration of Earth Day, a star-studded cast is giving fans a rare glimpse into the secret lives of some of the planet's most majestic animals: whales. In "Secrets of the Whales," a four-part documentary series by renowned National Geographic Photographer and Explorer Brian Skerry and Executive Producer James Cameron, viewers plunge deep into the lives and worlds of five different whale species.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b102b19b2719f50272ab718c44703dd0"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/xOySOlB78dM?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Herring are a primary food source for Norway's orcas. Luis Lamar / National Geographic for Disney+
Belugas are extremely social creatures with a varied vocal range. Peter Kragh / National Geographic for Disney+
A Southern Right whales is pictured in the accompanying book, "Secrets of the Whales." Brian Skerry / National Geographic
The coronavirus has isolated many of us in our homes this year. We've been forced to slow down a little, maybe looking out our windows, becoming more in tune with the rhythms of our yards. Perhaps we've begun to notice more, like the birds hopping around in the bushes out back, wondering (maybe for the first time) what they are.
A Coeligena helianthea hummingbird is photographed during a birdwatching trail at the Monserrate hill in Bogota on November 11, 2020. Colombia is the country with the largest bird diversity in the world, home to about 1,934 different bird species, a fifth of the total known. JUAN BARRETO / AFP / Getty Images
1. Choosing the Right Binoculars<p>Binoculars are a relatively indispensable tool for most birders – but, for those just starting out, it might not yet be worth the several-hundred-dollar investment. If you aren't able to scour the attics of friends or borrow a pair from a fellow bird watcher, some local birding and naturalist groups have <a href="https://vashonaudubon.org/all-about-vashon-birds/binoculars-check-out/" target="_blank">binocular loaning programs</a> for members, allowing you to plan ahead for a day (or week) of birding.</p><p>When you're ready to take the plunge, choosing a pair or binoculars should take some careful deliberation based on your needs and preferences; some <a href="https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/explore/optics/top-10-tips-buying-binoculars-bird-watching.php" target="_blank">major considerations</a> might include size, ease of use, <a href="https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/binoculars.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">magnification</a>, and price. While professional binoculars can easily run north of $1,000, there are plenty of perfectly suitable entry-level binoculars under $200. You might not get the perfect precision and clarity of more elite models, but a less expensive pair will allow you to strengthen your birding skills while deciding if you're interested in investing in a premium pair.</p><p>For a budget-friendly option, check out resale options on eBay, Facebook marketplace, or neighborhood yard sales: you might find a nicer pair whose retail price isn't within your budget.</p>
2. Know What Birds Are in Your Area<p>When I began to pay more attention to the birds just outside my apartment building, I started to learn what species have always been around me: European starlings, house sparrows, blue jays, black capped chickadees, and the occasional red-bellied woodpecker. They had always been there, but I hadn't ever taken the time to identify them. Once you learn to <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/get-know-these-20-common-birds_" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recognize common birds</a> in your area, you'll be able to identify the typical species right outside your window and in your community. Of course, permanent residential birds in your neighborhood will <a href="https://nestwatch.org/learn/focal-species/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vary by region</a>, as will those migrating through it.</p>
3. Get Out and Explore<p>Venturing elsewhere might allow you to spot some different species beyond those frequenting your backyard. Anywhere with water or greenery offers a place for birding; as an urbanite myself, I've found that even small- and mid-sized parks in New York City allow me to find more elusive birds (although Central Park takes the crown for an afternoon of urban birding).</p><p>If you are able to travel a bit further from home, <a href="https://www.fws.gov/refuges/" target="_blank">national wildlife refuges</a> and <a href="https://www.americasstateparks.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state/national parks</a> are excellent places to explore bird habitats and perhaps log some less-common sightings. The American Birding Association also lists <a href="https://www.aba.org/aba-area-birding-trails/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">birding trails by state</a>, and Audubon and BirdLife International identify <a href="https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Important Bird Areas (IBAs)</a> across the country – important bird habitats and iconic places that activists are fighting to protect – where birders can spot birds of significance.</p>
4. Finding a Bird: Stop, Look, Listen, Repeat<p>The National Audubon Society recommends the "<a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-find-bird" target="_blank">stop, look, listen, repeat</a>" mantra when seeking and identifying birds.</p><p>First and foremost, spotting birds requires attention. Stopping – getting out of the car, pausing on the sidewalk, trail, or in the backyard to look up – is the most important step.</p><p>When looking for birds, try to avoid gazing wildly around; rather, scan your surroundings, focusing on any odd shapes or shadows, trying to think about where a bird might perch (power lines, fence posts, branches), or keep an eye on the sky for flying eagles and hawks. In open areas like fields and beaches, you might have a more panoramic view, and can take in different sections of the landscape at a time. Look around with the naked eye before reaching for the binoculars to hone in.</p><p>While it can be hard to sift through the noise, listening for birds is perhaps an even more important element of bird watching than looking. Once you spend more time in the field, you'll be able to parse apart the racket and identify specific species, especially aided by Audubon's Bird Guide app or by learning from their <a href="https://www.audubon.org/section/birding-ear" target="_blank">Birding by Ear series</a>.</p><p>Repeat this pattern as you continue on your way, stopping to look and listen for birds as you go, rather than waiting for them to come to you. </p>
5. Identification<p>When you head out for a day of bird watching – especially when you're hoping to spot some new species – you'll want to be armed with the tools to identify what you see. <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-identify-birds" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Major considerations when identifying birds</a> are their group (such as owls, hawks, or sparrow-like birds), size and shape, behavior, voice, field marks, season, and habitat.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sibleyguides.com/about/the-sibley-guide-to-birds/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sibley Guide to Birds</a> and the <a href="https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/peterson-field-guide-to-birds-of-north-america-second-edition/9781328771445" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Peterson Field Guide</a> are widely considered the best books for identifying birds in North America, although many <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/what-bird-guide-best-you" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">specialized guides</a> focus on specific species or regions as well.</p><p>Plenty of <a href="https://blog.nature.org/science/2013/05/27/boucher-bird-blog-apps-smart-birder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bird identification apps</a> have popped up in recent years – including National Geographic Birds, Sibley eGuide to Birds, iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID, and Birdsnap – which are basically a <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/the-best-birding-apps-and-field-guides" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">field guide in your pocket</a>. I'm partial to the Audubon Bird Guide, which allows users to filter by common identifiers, including a bird's habitat, color, activity, tail shape, and general type, adding them all to a personal map to view your sightings.</p>
6. Recording Your Sightings<p><span>As you deepen your commitment to birding, you might join the community of birders that track and quantify their sightings, building their </span><a href="https://www.thespruce.com/what-birds-count-on-a-life-list-386704#:~:text=A%20life%20list%20is%20a,which%20birds%20you%20have%20seen." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">life list</a><span>.</span></p><p>While a standard notebook noting the date, species name, habitat, vocalizations, or any other data you wish to include will suffice, some birders opt for a more <a href="https://www.riteintherain.com/no-195-birders-journal" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">structured birder's journal</a> with pre-determined fields to record your encounters, take notes, draw sketches, etc.</p><p>Many birders also choose to record their sightings online and in shared databases (which include many of the field guide apps), often pinpointing them on a map for others to view. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird is one of the largest databases and citizen science projects around birding</a>, where hundreds of thousands of birders enter their sightings, and users can explore birds in regions and hotspots around the world. Users can also record their sightings on the <a href="https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ebird/id988799279" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird app</a>.</p>
7. Attracting Birds to Your Own Yard<p>Feeding birds is a common phenomenon: more than 40% of Americans maintain a birdfeeder to attract birds and watch them feast.</p><p>Not all birdfeed is created equal, however. Many commercial varieties are mostly made with "fillers" (oats, red millet, etc.) that birds will largely leave untouched. After researching what birds to expect in your area – and which ones you want to attract – you can create your own birdfeed with <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/types-of-bird-seed-a-quick-guide/?pid=1142" target="_blank">seeds that will appeal to them</a>.</p><p>Beyond filling a birdfeeder, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/eco-friendly-lawn-2651194858.html" target="_self">transforming your yard into an eco-friendly oasis</a> is by far the best way to attract birds. Choosing to forgo mowing your lawn, planting native flowers and grasses, and ditching the pesticides will bring back the bugs that birds feed on, and provide a safe haven in which birds can happily live and eat.</p><p>While it's widely considered acceptable – and even beneficial – to feed birds with appropriate seeds, communal birdfeeders often <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/to-feed-or-not-feed" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foster unlikely interactions between different species</a>, who can then transmit harmful diseases and parasites to one another. Maintaining several bird feeders with different types of seeds might keep different species from coming into contact, and feeders can be <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-clean-your-bird-feeder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cleaned to prevent the spread of infection</a>.</p>
8. Inclusivity and Anti-Racism in the Birding Community<p>Like all outdoor activities and areas of scientific study, birding communities are subject to racist and discriminatory ideologies. Black birders have long experienced discrimination and underrepresentation in outdoor spaces. The work of organizations like the <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdersfund/" target="_blank">Black & Latinx Birders Fund</a>, <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdability/" target="_blank">Birdability</a>, and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/feministbirdclub/" target="_blank">Feminist Bird Club</a> highlight the contributions and importance of birders of color, birders with disabilities, and women and LGBTQ+ birders to the birding community, as do activists and naturalists like <a href="https://www.instagram.com/hood__naturalist/" target="_blank">Corina Newsome</a> and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/tykeejames/" target="_blank">Tykee James</a>. The work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a>, <a href="https://camilledungy.com/publications/" target="_blank">Camille Dungy</a> (read her poem <a href="https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58363/frequently-asked-questions-10" target="_blank">Frequently Asked Questions: 10</a>), and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start.</p><p>Getting involved in birding means educating ourselves on these issues and taking meaningful action; the work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a> and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start. Just as birders are activists for protecting habitats and natural areas, we must also be active and aware of inclusivity in these spaces.</p>
9. Get Involved<p>To learn from and enjoy the company of other birders, check out local birding groups in your area to join. Many Audubon chapters host trips, meetings, and bird walks for members. The American Birding Association even maintains a <a href="https://www.aba.org/festivals-events/" target="_blank">directory of birding festivals</a> across the country.</p><p>Volunteering for birds is also a great way to meet other birders and take action for birds in your community; local organizations might have opportunities for assisting with habitat restoration or helping at birding centers.</p><p>Like all wildlife, climate change and habitat destruction threaten the livelihood of birds, eliminating their breeding grounds and food sources. A <a href="https://www.audubon.org/climate/survivalbydegrees" target="_blank">2019 report released by the National Audubon Society</a> found that two-thirds of North American birds may face extinction if global temperatures rise 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Staying informed about and taking action for legislation designed to protect birds and our climate – such as the recent <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5552/text" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Migratory Bird Protection Act</a> – is important for ensuring a livable future for wildlife and humans alike.</p><p><em>Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC. </em><em>Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.</em></p>
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