Malaysia plays global leadership role in sustainable palm oil production

Malaysia plays global leadership role in sustainable palm oil production

Opinions on topical issues from thought leaders, columnists and editors.

By : Datuk Dr Ahmad Parveez Ghulam Kadir

Malaysia, as a responsible producer of palm oil, has long taken a global leadership role in implementing a continuous stream of oil palm cultivation and palm oil process innovations aimed at making palm oil production more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Implementing UNSDGs and MSPO certification

Malaysia prescribes to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) Agenda 2030 and has recently reaffirmed its commitment to implementing these agendas as the primary framework to drive and attain higher sustainability commitment within the oil palm industry, as reflected in Malaysia’s national development blueprint, the 12th Malaysia Plan.

In line with the UNSDGs, Malaysia introduced the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification scheme in 2015, a catalyst for transforming the palm oil industry, including the smallholders towards sustainability.

Made mandatory beginning 1 January 2020, the certification scheme is the national sustainability scheme for the Malaysian oil palm industry, requiring plantations, independent and organised smallholdings, as well as palm oil processing facilities to be certified sustainable. It addresses the critical issues on deforestation, biodiversity loss and conservation of high-biodiversity value areas, issues relating to climate change, planting on peatland, fire, haze, greenhouse gases, employment and work conditions, child and forced labour, communal (Native Customary Rights – NCR) land & ownership rights as well as health issues.

Malaysia is the first and only country worldwide to make government-mandated sustainability certification a requirement for its oil palm industry. The MSPO Standards which were revised in 2022, contain five principles which form the general requirements of a management system framework, based on the three pillars of sustainability, namely, economically viable, socially acceptable, and environmentally sound. The five MSPO principles are management commitment and responsibility; transparency; compliance with legal and other requirements; responsibility to social, health, safety and employment conditions; and environment, natural resources, biodiversity and ecosystem services.

According to the MPOB and Malaysian Palm Oil Certification Council (MPOCC) data, until 30 September 2022, the MSPO certification has reached 98.28% which indicated that 5,638,995.83 hectares out of a total 5,737,731.36 hectares of oil palm planted areas in Malaysia have been certified under the MSPO. Additionally, about 98.93% or 461 of the 466 mills in the country have been certified under the MSPO.

Besides, the Malaysian oil palm industry also subscribes to voluntary certification schemes such as Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). For the record, 1,245,483 hectares of Malaysian oil palm plantations are already RSPO certified. Malaysian palm oil biofuel exporters also meet the strict standards of sustainability required by European consumers including being certified by the German International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC).

Protecting forests and peatland

Malaysia has been strengthening its measures to protect its forests and peatland by further improving forest law enforcement such as amendments to the National Forestry Act 1984 in preventing illegal harvesting of forest products as well as improving and strengthening the management of permanent reserved forest areas.

Malaysia also established policies towards sustainable oil palm cultivation, which comprise, among others, a cap of 6.5 million hectares on the area under oil palm cultivation. The policies also see the ban on planting of new oil palms in peatland areas and the strengthening of regulations with regard to existing oil palm cultivation on peat. Apart from that, the policies also ban the conversion of forest reserve areas for oil palm cultivation.

Maintaining 50% of land area under forest cover

Some 55.6% or about 18.3 million hectares of Malaysia’s land area is forested land and, out of that, 18.7% or 3.8 million hectares is classified as primary forest, the most biodiverse and carbon-dense form of forest.

The Malaysian oil palm industry is highly regulated and governed by more than 60 national laws and regulations including the Land Acquisition Act 1960, National Land Code 1965, Environmental Land Conservation Act 1960 revised in 1989, Quality Act 1974, Pesticides Rules 1988, Occupational Safety and Health Act 1977, Labour Law and Wildlife Conservation Act 2010.

Malaysia participated in the Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use and the Global Methane Pledge at the 26th Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP-26) held in Glasgow, United Kingdom, in November 2021. This is in line with its commitment to continue to maintain at least 50 per cent of the country’s land area under forest cover and to strengthen commitment to conservation and sustainable management of forests and other ecosystems and land use including agriculture.

Malaysia will also continue to contribute to the reduction of global anthropogenic methane gas emissions in all sectors. The palm oil sector could contribute in the reduction of the country’s methane emission through intensifying initiatives to capture biogas from palm oil mill effluents.

At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, Malaysia pledged to maintain at least 50% of its landmass under forest and tree cover, which is far higher than forest cover in most large European countries including France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom.

This represents Malaysia’s commitment to conserve and sustainably manage its forests and protect its flora and fauna.

Over the past decades, Malaysia’s deforestation rate has decreased. For the period from 1991 to 2000, the deforestation rate was at 0.27%, which decreased to 0.09% for the period from 2001 to 2010. From 2010 to 2015, the forested area actually increased by 2% to 18.25 million ha. More specifically, during the period from 2008 to 2018, except for 2016 and 2018, all other years recorded a net gain in forest area. The main reason for the increase was the implementation of the MSPO which aims to reduce social and environmental impact.

Malaysia has also delivered on its commitment to UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris in 2015 on climate change whereby it voluntarily agreed to cut the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission intensity by 45% by 2030 relative to the emissions intensity of GDP in 2005 and it has so far reduced it by 33%. In 2014, Malaysia’s net carbon dioxide removals were 1.7 times and 3.5 times higher than that of France and Germany, respectively.

Conserving wildlife and biodiversity

In conserving wildlife and biodiversity, the Malaysian Palm Oil Green Conservation Foundation (MPOGCF) has been established to reflect the country’s commitment in conserving the environment. It is a proactive initiative that sees the Malaysian oil palm industry working together with organisations such as the Sabah Wildlife Department to support wildlife rescue and conservation efforts.

MPOGCF’s initiatives include a survey on the latest population of Bornean orang-utans and pygmy elephants in Sabah and to identify conservation challenges and opportunities for these wildlife species.

The initiation of the Borneo Elephant Wildlife Sanctuary addresses human-elephant conflict and creates a controlled public access sanctuary to better understand and care for these animals. The planting of elephant grass species encourages the elephants to utilise the wildlife corridors and help to mitigate human-elephant conflict in Sabah and ultimately allow coexistence between wildlife and plantations.

Malaysia, together with Indonesia and Brunei, is also active in the “Heart of Borneo” Initiative to conserve approximately 20 million hectares of ecologically interconnected rainforest, with about 30% of the area in Malaysia.

Supporting Orangutan conservation

There are three species of orangutan – the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus), Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) and the Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis). Of these, only the Bornean orangutan can be found in Malaysian Borneo. The known populations include the subspecies P. p. pygmaeus in Sarawak while Sabah remains a stronghold for the subspecies P. p. morio or the Northeast Bornean Orangutan. The populations of these subspecies have been stable at about 11,000 for the past 15 years.

Retaining high conservation value (HCV), high carbon stock (HCS) areas and riparian buffers, which are part of the requirements of certification schemes (such as MSPO, RSPO, ISCC) provide opportunities for plantation companies to actively contribute towards orangutan conservation.

Malaysia has long made concerted efforts to ensure the conservation of its biodiversity and natural resources by creating and supporting projects both inland and at sea, such as the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Turtle Island Reserve, Sipadan Island Reserve and Danum Valley. Sepilok, renowned for its orangutan rehabilitation project, has expanded its objectives to include public education on conservation and research on other endangered species.

Meanwhile, some of Malaysian palm oil-related companies are also noted for being actively involved in the funding of wildlife conservation projects in Malaysia. These contributions are not only limited to orangutan but also fund conservation programmes for other endangered species such as the Sumatran rhino, hornbill, tiger and sun bear.

National Biodiesel Programme

The Malaysia National Biodiesel Programme for the transport sector, which involves blending 20 per cent palm methyl esters with 80 per cent diesel, is expected to cause an estimated GHG emission avoidance (carbon dioxide equivalent) of 3,202,000 tonnes per year. The estimated GHG emission avoidance is based on an estimated usage of biodiesel consumption of 1,067,178 tonnes per year.

Advantages over other oil crops

Oil palm plantations have significant advantages over competing oil crops. Unlike other oil crops, oil palms trees absorb carbon dioxide and can be considered as important carbon sinks. Hence, an oil palm plantation contributes to efficient carbon sink and has significant role in the global carbon balance.

Compared to other oil crops, oil palms also require less fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides, allowing more environmentally friendly agricultural practices.

Still, oil palms produce four to nine times more oil per hectare than any other oil crop. In other words, soyabean, sunflower and rapeseed demand four to nine times more land than oil palms to produce one metric tonne of “like” oil. In simple terms, oil crops other than oil palm require significantly more land for the same yield, as well as significantly more fertilisers and pesticides. These facts should not be ignored as they play a role when determining the impact of oil crops on GHG emissions.

Government’s commitment on workers’ rights and labour requirements
Malaysia has pledged to eradicate forced labour and child labour through ratification of the ILO Fundamental Convention No. 29 (Forced Labour) and Convention No.182 (Worst Forms of Child Labour), respectively. In addition, Malaysia has ratified Convention No.98 (Collective Bargaining), Convention No.100 (Equal Remuneration) and Convention No.138 (Minimum Age) and Convention No.131 (Minimum Wage).

These conventions provide useful guidance in determining Malaysia’s obligations with respect to the protection of the rights of foreign workers. At present, Malaysia is also embarking on the BRIDGE Project with the ILO, aimed at supporting government efforts at combating forced labour under Protocol 29 (Supplementary Protocol to Convention 29) as a guidance on measures to eliminate all areas of forced labour (prevention, protection of victims and access to justice).

Malaysia has conducted a comprehensive study on The Labour Situation in Palm Oil Plantation Sector in Malaysia in 2018. The findings of the study have been sent to the United States Department of Labour and released as a public document.

The study has identified proposals and recommendations to address issues and problems related to the labour situation in the oil palm plantation sector.

On 19 November 2021, the Government of Malaysia has agreed to ratify the ILO Protocol 29 which is the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, as well as Malaysia’s participation as a Pathfinder country under the SDG Alliance 8.7 as part of the ongoing effort to eradicate forced labour in Malaysia.

— BERNAMA

Datuk Dr Ahmad Parveez Hj. Ghulam Kadir is the Director-General of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB).

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of BERNAMA)

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