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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."
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."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Unearthed.
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By Tara Smith
Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.
Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.
Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.
From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.
Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.
Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.
Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?
Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.
When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.
The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.
The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.
But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.
Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.
This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
By Natalie Hanman
Why are you publishing this book now?
I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.
The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?
When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.
What's stopping the left doing this?
In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.
Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?
I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.
That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.
This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.
One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?
When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?
I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.
This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.
In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?
In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.
Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...
Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.
Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?
I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?
Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?
It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.
What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?
One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.
You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?
I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.
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By Ben Jervey
Drivers of electric cars are being unfairly punished by punitive fees in several states, according to a newly published analysis by Consumer Reports. Legislators in 26 states have enacted or proposed special registration fees for electric vehicles (EVs) that the consumer advocacy group found to be more expensive than the gas taxes paid by the driver of an average new gasoline vehicle.
By Oliver Milman
Two-thirds of Americans believe climate change is either a crisis or a serious problem, with a majority wanting immediate action to address global heating and its damaging consequences, major new polling has found.