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EU funding green groups raise eyebrows in M'sia's palm oil industry
Publication Date : 21-01-2014
How credible are the European green groups if they have been receiving funding from the European Union to further its own cause?
The news that environmental groups – such as World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Friends of the Earth (FoEE), and many others – have been receiving some £90 million (US$147 million) over the last 15 years has certainly raised eyebrows in our local palm oil industry.
United Plantations chief executive director Carl Bek-Nielsen says this has definitely put a dent in the credibility of the green groups who are pushing for the anti-palm oil lobby.
“If their (the green groups) existence depends on contribution or support from the EU, then we should ask ourselves, ‘Where is their objectivity?’
“The issue here is that it is also very contradictory to what the EU preaches – a level playing field for all ... fair trade. But this is clearly a way of putting up invisible trade barriers by funding certain parties and using their influence to stir up the emotion of consumers not to support certain products, which is trade distorting,” he says.
“Our industry is not perfect, and neither are most industries, but we have good ambitions. We are also open to new ideas and many of us have taken a leap of faith to show tangible signs of moving forward by doing things in a sustainable and eco-friendly manner.
“Regretfully, we have seen that in spite of our industry bending over backwards by fulfilling the stiff criteria of the RSPO there remains a void as the demand for sustainable palm oil is not as high as what we were told it would be. There is only a demand for 50% of what is available and that sends a very negative perception to the growers who now ask ‘Why should we go all the way when the demand is not there?’,” Bek-Nielsen says.
According to the recent article by The Telegraph of UK titled “European Union funding £90m green lobbying con”, some “£7.5 million in the latest round of grants went to help ‘strengthen’ green groups ‘in the dialogue process in environmental policymaking and in its implementation’”.
The top recipients of these funds were the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), European policy office of the WWF, and FoEE. All three are based in Brussels.
The EEB whose declared mission is to “influence EU policymaking” and ensure EU policies are properly implemented by member states has received £10.5 million from the fund since 1997.
WWF and FoEE have received £7.4 million and £6.4 million respectively.
Tradewinds Plantation Bhd group corporate adviser Dr Mohd Noor Ismail says the implications from the article are very clear.
“They are creating a huge trade barrier for our palm oil industry. Originally, they said palm oil was not good for health, but they’ve lost that argument. Now they are arguing against palm oil on environmental grounds, that we are killing orang utans.
“What baffles me personally, though, is that we have an RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) for palm oil, but there is no such equivalent for many other vegetable oils, and yet we are the ones who are attacked,” he says.
The anti-palm oil lobby from the West has been going on for years, with lobbyists pushing for soybean, sunflower or rapeseed oil (Western exports) instead.
In France, for example, the attacks against palm oil have come in two major forms - the “Sans Huile de Palme” (palm oil free in French) logos prominently stamped on many food cartons and the “Nutella Tax”, a 300% increase in tax imposed on palm oil.
Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand make up the world’s top three producers of palm oil, and in Malaysia, palm oil accounts for 5% to 6% of our country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
“Today, the total planted area for palm oil takes up less than 1% of the world’s total agriculture land (which includes wheat, corn and other vegetable oils), but this meagre 1% produces 32% of the world’s total oils and fats,” Bek-Nielsen explains.
In 2011, Malaysia exported a total of 24.3 million tonnes of palm oil valued at 80.4 billion ringgit ($24 billion). In 2012, Malaysia exported a total of 24.6 million tonnes valued at 71.5 billion. Last year, Malaysia exported 25.6 million tonnes of palm oil valued at 61.3 billion ringgit.
Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA) chief executive officer Dr Makhdzir Mardan has also voiced his concern.
“This is startling news, and it should be a wake-up call for us within the industry.
“We have to device strategies to brace ourselves to deal with such issues. I believe national interest is also at stake here. I think the Government should sit up and take note. This issue cannot be left to the private plantations to deal with alone,” he says, adding that MPOA is looking into this development very seriously.
RSPO advisor M. R. Chandran, however, says he sees no cause for concern over palm oil, based on what has been funded to date.
“It seems to me a legitimate and a positive thing for the EU to do - that is outsourcing to a variety of NGOs to ensure EU policies are properly implemented. This news should also be viewed in light of Life+, which will see £3.4 billion poured into green groups from 2014 to 2020,” he says.
The Life Programme is the EU’s funding instrument for the environment – to contribute to the implementation, updating and development of EU environmental policy and legislation by co-financing pilot or demonstration projects with European added value. The Life Programme began in 1992 and there are three complete phases of the programme, to date.
“EU claims the awards are done transparently and one has no reason to doubt that… I cannot see any specific agenda or basis for concern over this being a way for either the EU bureaucracy or civil societies to drive the anti-palm oil lobby in Europe.
“Three big NGOs are mentioned: WWF and FoEE have taken these funds, while Greenpeace has not. Given these NGOs’ different approaches, there seems no cause for suspicion there regarding palm oil and Malaysia,” he says.
He adds that as painful as it may be for some commodity producers to accept, “it seems to me that the solution can only be to open up a dialogue directly with the NGOs (civil societies), or through standard setting organisations like RSPO to address all legitimate concerns, and correct any perception issues”.
“After all, it was precisely for this reason that RSPO, RTRS (Roundtable for Responsible Soy), Fairtrade Coffee, Rainforest Alliance Certified Cocoa etc. were established.
“People have to remember, it’s the consumers who demand and set the standards. Standards are set by the markets, not by governments,” he concludes.
*US$1 = 3.32 ringgit
*US$1 = £0.61