The annual haze fest in South-East Asia is here again

Is sustainable palm oil a scam? What rorts lie behind South-East Asia’s annual haze – fest? Who cares anyway?  And what links if any to Australia?

Get out your festival gear. It’s time for the South-East Asia’s annual haze again (1) – the annual ritual sacrifice of regional accountability, national common sense and any credibility for CSR statements by all the big palm oil companies. Last year although regional governments were quick to deny this (3) it was estimated that 100,000 deaths were caused annually by the haze (2). Greenpeace thus referred to the ‘killer haze’ on the basis of several independent University reports about this. Another report achieved apparently reliable estimates that related fires in 2015 caused over US$16 billion in damages.  At this time when the smoke gets up students are often kept home from school (and sometimes work offices also shut down) in KL, Singapore and/or Jakarta. Although the haze has been happening annually for decades it’s only in the last few years that the big city middle classes in the region have put enormous pressure on governments to act. Much talk happens (as it did several years ago when I was commissioned to assist with an ASEAN proposal to ‘stop the haze’ – see below) but generally little action. Indonesia’s Jokowi seemed to sincerely give commitments to fix the problem last week but he probably does not quite realize what he is up against in the form of big corporations and other vested interests who don’t seem to ever change (4). Likewise, Singapore politicians similarly posture until they remember that their own vested interests (e.g. the biggest PO company Wilmar is based in Sg) are as much if not more behind the problem than Indonesian companies. Hey, but you never know, this year could be different (not)!

For those who are not aware about the haze (go to link 5 below for an introductory overview) it especially relates to the peatland (as well as ex-rainforest) areas of Sumatra and Borneo where local people are often pushed off their land (given away as concessions)  and/or their labor exploited – with  vested interests trying to convert these areas so palm oil can be grown on an extensive mono-cultural scale (i.e. the carbon-intensive peatland areas are not normally conducive to palm oil plantations until they is removed by fire or related means). In other words, the palm oil companies all claim the fires have nothing to do with them and everyone knows that this is not really the case – that behind the scenes they typically have indirect and often direct responsibility for the haze as they do with related acceleration of carbon emissions, environmental degradation and related social/national costs far in excess of selective corporate profits.  The classic case was Wilmar who helped to destroy any confidence by Norway in its REDD scheme to help save vulnerable rainforest and peatland areas (this was apparently after Wilmar was reported to have secretly sanctioned bull-dozers the very next day to knock down the very trees that Norway had just given big money to Indonesia to save). A related Greenpeace report on Wilmar was appropriatetly named the ‘the great palm oil scandal’ (along with similar reports on the haze and about the role of Western supply chain companies which have a more pivotal role in the palm oil industry than is generally acknowledged or realised) (6 – and see also 7 and 8).

After helping to set up a sustainable policy studies centre at  a KL university some years, I later got invited  to attend a CSR day by Malaysia’s biggest palm oil company Sime Darby – who just happened to be the Chair of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil which claims to ensure that the industry really does practice ‘sustainable palm oil’. When we were told the story of how they flew a plane-load of journalists to Sumatra to prove that none of the fires were on their land, I couldn’t help myself and pointed out that ‘no-one really believes you… but if you are serious then I am collaborating with Finnish company Arbonaut on a sure-fire framework to “stop the haze”. After stunned silence followed by a quiet chat in the lunch break, I was invited by the head of sustainability for Sime Darby (the one who chaired the Roundtable) to develop our proposal further for them – which coincided several months later with the ASEAN agreement that the haze must be stopped. You can read the written report below (9) about the ‘successful’ presentation which saw us invited to work with the Global Environment Centre on a model to be adopted by regional governments. But of course, as we soon found out, whilst some of the Sime Darby sustainability people were genuine and committed, they were always going to be over-ruled by other forces so that nothing happened and promised sponsorships and actions never materialized. Undertaking further research I found various references to Sime Darby’s extensive complicity in ‘non-sustainable’ practices. This included how a recent Sime Darby CEO was up on serious corruption charges for having been behind the crony sell-off of prime land in Sarawak (10 & 11) – under the dubious influence of Governor Taib, long regarded as the epicenter of (or model for?) questionable practices to do with logging, palm oil and related ‘social engineering’ efforts in the region (e.g. 12)

This brings us to the question of whether ‘sustainable palm oil’ is a rort? Its really a question of ‘how’ not ‘if’ this is the case (yes, it is basically a public relations-cum-advertising gimmick) (13). For a start, the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification tends to involve very minor checklist refinements in practices (e.g. spacing between trees when sown) which would only be meaningful if also there were macro commitments by governments, industries and (above all) the main palm oil company players – and unfortunately, not really (14). So it really tends to be a case of ‘greenwashing’ (15 and 16). Such checklists so annoyed local industry players they threatened (e.g. in 2014) to withdraw from Western supply chains to only sell to China (e.g. Taib’s timber industry model) – until they realized how the supply chain players such as Unilever, Nestle, and Colgate-Palmolive had no effective choice but to demand compliance mainly to appease their own investors and local markets (15). Somehow the Germans and other Europeans are reassured by and really believe that ‘sustainable palm oil’ makes a big difference in the long run.  In short, these guys will not stop even when the last tree in Borneo is knocked down, and all else is mere and empty talk (or as the locals like to put it, NATO – no action, talk only).

An interesting postscript to above is how I found out from direct family experience the extent of how a good deal of that Sarawakian money (from often illegal and unscrupulous concessions and deals generating great wealth from logging, palm oil and land deals at the expense of local peoples) is invested (laundered?) in Australia. After my mother’s boundary fence was apparently burnt down as part of a possible conspiracy to force her off her farm in North Queensland, we found that this may have been organized either by her secretive neighbors (who turned out to be part of the Tiong family Sarawakian m/billionaires) or their erstwhile local manager (who, as well as having his fingers in some of his own questionable real estate deals on the side also oversees part or all of their extensive yet secretive empire which has included cattle stations, fruit farms, resort developments, and blue ribbon shopping centers such as the Brisbane Myer Center and Darling Harbor) (18). Much of this is in the name of shell companies with non-existent addresses such as ‘the road between Ayr and Townsville’. This is all now the focus of a formal investigation by a Queensland government agency ethics committee and still may lead to criminal charges. That would be great but we are not holding our breath – but certainly like the Wilmar takeover of  the Qld sugar industry (see our earlier post about this – 19) it all offers a window of insight into the tentacles of palm oil company profiteering also extending to Australian land and other rural industries.  Maybe Thomas Tiong (if it wasn’t the manager) had the idea that it should be as easy to throw a 76 year old Australian woman off her land as some of the tribal groups in Sarawak (whose land claims typically are ignored or denied so that indiscriminate logging can proceed followed by extensive palm oil plantations where all local plant, animal and human life has disappeared?)

[Qualification:  We do not endorse apparent efforts to completely close down the palm oil industry. Palm oil itself is a powerful natural product with some unique properties – as well as important to some regional local economies. But the obsession with it that leads to environmental destruction and social devastation is the real worst enemy of the kind of sustainable industry that is needed and which we have tried to assist with in our report below – CKR 10/8/2016]

  5. what causes haze
  9. Richards, C. & Pons, S. (2014). Stopping the haze: Towards an integrated policy and practical implementation to help ensure the future sustainability of the palm oil industry, Proposal submission and presentation to Sime Darby Berhard, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and the Global Environment Centre, Kuala Lumpur, 17th February. [link to come]



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