All last year the Malaysian Palm Oil Council and its political allies conducted an unrelenting and belligerent campaign against environmental and human rights critics and lashed back at the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive, aimed at ensuring a more responsible market approach towards a cash crop that has replaced most of the natural vegetation of the region in a matter of just a few decades.
Palm oil is good for you; it has caused no environmental destruction; there are no concerns over the treatment of the millions of migrant workers and this is all about helping Malaysia’s indigenous smallholders who toil on the soil, like those from FELDA – so the MPOC would have you believe.
These poor vulnerable farmers are being discriminated against by big-agri from the West like the soya bean business, the argument continues. In retaliation, Malaysia has been preparing a case of trade discrimination at the WTO in tandem with Indonesia.
Meanwhile, the country has gone in search of less “fussy” trade partners with vast appetites for cheap oil (as long as it remains dirt cheap) such as China and India.
It is an attitude and strategy that has won few friends naturally in Europe, where the population are sick with worry about climate change and sceptical of self-justification based on Malaysia’s ‘right to catch up’ economically without reference to the consequences for the planet.
Most businesses are well aware that one can’t force one’s client to want your product and that successful salesmanship is about seduction and keeping a finger on the pulse of your target markets.
However, the Malaysian structure of government co-ownership has injected politics and bureaucratic intransigence into the equation, turning this matter into a battle that nimbler operators would surely have avoided years ago in favour of a more opportunist approach and working with rather than against customers with plenty of cash to spend for the right product.
Europeans are prepared to pay more to know that their purchases are helping the environment of Malaysia and not destroying it – because Europeans seem to understand so much better than Malaysians themselves the special value of their tropical regions, vegetation and animal life.
Politics and self-interest have worked to keep Malaysians focused on outdated concepts of ‘development’ and not the conservation of their world class natural heritage and cultural ties to their own lands.
And today the situation just got so much worse for Malaysia’s single-tracked, hostile and defensive approach towards its markets with a shock announcement, this time from the United States Custom and Border Protection vetoing Felda products.
This time Malaysia is being faced with an all out ban on its largest producer cooperative in the most lucrative market in the world. On top of the EU imbroglio, which has already seen plummeting demand and a collapse in prices, the consequences of this move promise to be devastating for a country already on the brink of economic meltdown following the chaos of a backdoor coup and covid.
Sarawak Report will leave it to those better qualified to comment on the exact consequences of the blow, but the scale of disaster can hardly be underplayed – already the giant Proctor & Gamble has been confronted with severing FGV as a supplier for its massive range of goods.
And why did it happen? It happened because an extensive study has been taken into Malaysia’s long criticised treatment of the millions of migrant workers that the oil palm business has taken advantage of for decades.
The government and business and its representative bodies have simply refused to address the problem and denied it patriotically. Every time Sarawak Report has raised the humane concerns about fellow human beings employed in Malaysia we have faced a barrage of criticism and denial from readers, all taught to consider the matter ‘fake news’.
These are all kindly people who would normally be shocked if they really knew the awful conditions so many workers have been forced to endure. However, down on the ground in places like Sarawak there is a reason why local indigenous folk refuse to take the jobs being offered by the palm oil barons and why Felda farmers on the Peninsular often prefer to hire workers rather than do the job themselves.
The smallholder fig leaf is a convenient myth in most of Malaysia, where small farmers cannot begin to compete with big-agri and their semi-slave labour, exploiting vulnerable people (even on occasion slaves) far from their own homes.
Now the Americans have done their study and they have announced they will not buy the product. The shocking announcement compares with 1MDB in terms of the scandal and national humiliation it has brought on Malaysians, most of whom have been kept ignorant of the reality of the situation by aggressive business interests enmeshed with government.
This is what today’s announcement says in advance of the details of the report becoming public:
Effective September 30 at all U.S. ports of entry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will detain palm oil and palm oil products made by FGV Holdings Berhad and its subsidiaries and joint ventures.
CBP’s Office of Trade directed the issuance of a Withhold Release Order (WRO) against palm oil and palm oil products made by FGV based on information that reasonably indicates the use of forced labor. The order is the result of a year-long investigation that revealed forced labor indicators including abuse of vulnerability, deception, restriction of movement, isolation, physical and sexual violence, intimidation and threats, retention of identity documents, withholding of wages, debt bondage, abusive working and living conditions, and excessive overtime. The investigation also raised concerns that forced child labor is potentially being used in FGV’s palm oil production process. [see the press release]
The accusations mirror concerns which have been raised consistently by the likes of Sarawak Report and others, always aggressively denied and ignored. Lack of transparency and the barring of investigative teams into the business have instead been the norm.
““CBP will continue to remind Americans that we can use our economic power to tell companies that we will not tolerate forced labor in U.S. supply chains,” says Brenda Smith the Executive Assistant Commissioner of CBP’s Office of Trade in this press release and there is no doubt whatsoever that, once again, the MPOC and others will claim this is nothing but a matter of competition between rival businesses, where the western nations are favouring their own producers. It isn’t true
There are abuses in Malaysia against immigrant workers and the palm oil business has been unnecessarily destructive of the environment – all because of excessive greed, the refusal to accept criticism and a failure to properly regulate this business thanks to corrupted politicians.
All this can change, however, and the opportunity for Malaysia is to do just that.
With the world yearning for green policies it is time to re-think strategy and to win back friends, win back markets and go after the as yet un-tapped billions of reforestation dollars and investment that a more responsible green policy could achieve.