Move to have WTO's ear on palm oil fight

The photo below is a courtesy of Kuching-based Alvin Leong Photography.

Malaysia and Indonesia may file a complaint to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) over protectionist measures, disguised as environmental concerns and imposed by developed nations and activist groups, against the oil palm industry.

"I'll be in Indonesia later this month. Although non-tarriff trade barriers are not on the official agenda, I will explore this topic with my counterpart," Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Tan Sri Bernard Dompok said.

"We need to find out more about the legal definition of 'trade barriers'. We need to be sure what constitutes a substantive complaint before we make a joint decision," he told reporters after opening the Indonesia-Malaysia Palm Oil Meeting in Kuching, Sarawak, yesterday.

One such law in Europe that blatantly discriminates against the import of palm oil is the European Union (EU) renewable energy directive. The directive seeks to restrict the import of palm oil for biofuel use in Europe in favour of the heavily subsidised home-grown rapeseed oil. Adopted last year, the directive will take effect at the end of this year, which means member states must draft their laws based on it.

Dompok's views echoed that of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who, six months ago at the 2009 Malaysia-Indonesia Economic Seminar, had called on leaders of both countries to be more vocal in their stand at international forums. "If both Indonesia and Malaysia speak out with one voice, it will be more effective. This way, both countries will earn the respect of others," he said.

Prior to the press conference, Dr Lulie Melling, director of the Tropical Peat Research Laboratory Unit at the Sarawak Chief Minister's Department, presented her studies on peat agriculture. As early as 2005, findings on greenhouse gas emission from oil palm planting on tropical peat-land published in peer-reviewed environmental scientific journals, "Tellus" and "Soil Biology Biochemistry", indicated that the planting of oil palm trees on peat soil was not as polluting as largely believed.

Oil palm trees planted on peat soil actually emit less carbon dioxide than those in old forests as there are less fresh litter and root biomass for microbes to feed on and contribute to decomposition.

Also present at yesterday's event were representatives from the Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA), Indonesian Palm Oil Association, or Gapki, Association of Plantation Investors of Malaysia in Indonesia, Sarawak Oil Palm Plantation Owners Association (Soppoa), Felda Group, Malaysian Estate Owners Association, and East Malaysia Planters Association.

Soppoa chairman Datuk Hamed Sepawi, in addressing the 200-strong crowd of planters and government officials, highlighted that the oil palm industry is a national economic security crop for both Malaysia and Indonesia.

"The trees are planted by tens of millions of oil palm growers in both countries. At the same time, this nutritious edible oil feeds billions of people in China, India and other developing nations. The future growth of the oil palm industry is in Sarawak and Indonesia," he said.

In the last two years, Malaysia earned between RM50 billion and RM65 billion a year from palm oil exports. The industry also constitutes up to one-third the value of Malaysia's gross domestic product. Malaysia's RM65 billion annual palm oil exports support some two million jobs and livelihoods along the sprawling palm oil value chain.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Board's data also show that more than 330,000 smallholder families, working on 1.6 million hectares, produce a quarter of the nation's palm oil exports.

Gapki leader Purboyo Guritno concurred with Hamed. The Indonesian Palm Oil Commission indicated that the republic earns US$10 billion (RM32 billion) annually from palm oil shipments. "Indonesia and Malaysia must take a more proactive approach in protecting the growth of the oil palm industry that supports tens of millions of livelihoods," he said.

Purboyo said that oil palm planters had long been victimised and discriminated by trade barriers disguised as environmental protection, levied by developed nations like those in the EU and green activists. "We need to find ways to improve the collation and dissemination of scientific data on peat agriculture and greenhouse gas emissions so that everybody can better distinguish facts from false claims," he said.

KL, Jakarta to fight anti-palm oil lobby

Oil palm planters in Malaysia and Indonesia are joining hands to form a coalition to fight anti-palm oil lobby that has been intensifying recently.

Fierce rivalry from competing vegetable oils grown in Europe and North America has prompted underhanded tactics by developed nations to curb the growth of the palm oil trade.

At a meeting in Kuching, Sarawak, yesterday, Malaysian and Indonesian oil palm planters did not discuss an alternative scheme to certify that palm oil is produced from sustainable methods. However, they agree to engage with the existing Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) for a more practical scheme.

The Malaysian Palm Oil Association (MPOA), the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (Gapki), Association of Plantation Investors of Malaysia in Indonesia (Apimi), Felda and Sarawak Oil Palm Plantation Owners Association (Soppoa) have decided to form a coalition called the Indonesia-Malaysia Palm Oil Group (Impog).

The first chairman of Impog will be from Apimi and will serve as Impog's secretariat for the year 2010. The chairmanship will be rotated bi-annually. Impog has also formed a steering committee to focus on emerging research and development, sustainability related issues and communications to stakeholders.

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