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Malaysia can emulate Gabon’s sustainable plantation policy


RECENTLY, the Norwegian Parliament requested its government to limit and phase out palm oil in its biofuels policy, to take effect from January 2020. The aim is to exclude biofuels with a high deforestation risk.

In June last year, the French government announced its plans to reduce palm oil imports and is proposing that the European Union does the same.

Many European nations categorise palm oil producers in Southeast Asia as the drivers of deforestation and unsustainable agricultural practices.

The European public is exposed to media images of wholesale destruction of rainforests by fires and bulldozers in the island of Borneo, acute air pollution due to forest fires, forced evictions of native indigenous settlements, gross abuse of human rights and deaths of thousands of orang utans and other animals, among others. Sadly, the situation in some countries is true.

The European producers of rapeseed, sunflower and soy bean oil are also against oil palm as it is cheaper to produce and uses far less land. Naturally, they are protecting their turf.

The Malaysian Oil Palm Council has stated that the EU action will threaten the livelihood of 650,000 smallholders. Finding alternative markets (outside the EU) may not be feasible.

In 2017, about 51 per cent of the palm oil used in Europe were for biofuels which ended up in petrol tanks.

Palm oil is the world’s most popular vegetable oil and constitutes one third of global use.

Our Primary Industries Ministry has urged Norway to review its policy on phasing out palm oil. Malaysia has adopted sustainable practices throughout the palm oil value chain, including the mandatory Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil certification and maintaining its forest cover by at least 50 per cent.

But we need to substantially do more to counter the anti-palm oil activists who have significant influence over EU governments and Parliaments.

A first step is to have a national land-use plan. The December 2018 edition of the National Geographic reported that Gabon, a West Central African country, is cultivating oil palm on a commercial scale but without doing the kind of environmental damage that is occurring in Southeast Asia. Its national land-use plan attempts to keep a balance between oil palm, agriculture and forest preservation.

More than 76 per cent of Gabon is covered by forests. Its national parks agency, the Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux (ANPN), has overseen the mapping of the country’s land and wildlife to determine which areas should be developed for agriculture.

The Gabon government has granted two new oil palm concessions to Olam, a Singapore-based agribusiness company.

One Olam plantation, called Awala and measuring 20,234ha, is a secondary forest, where logging is a past practice. One third of it is cultivated with oil palm, another third is conserved as one block of forest and the rest remains standing in smaller parcels, some on steep hillsides.

At its other plantation in Mouila, more than 50 per cent of the planted area is in open savannah or grassland. It is chosen to avoid deforestation.

The close cooperation between Olam and ANPN ensures that palm oil projects in the right place with the right management can preserve primary forests and increase Gabon’s food production. Interestingly, the Mouila plantation may be part of a new national park.

Oil palm cultivation can flourish in secondary jungles and grasslands. We can apply such practices in Malaysia.

We can learn from Gabon as oil palm is native to West Central Africa. About 3,000 years ago, the Bantu people brought oil palm to Gabon. It was later introduced to Southeast Asia.

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