Malaysia is promoting its palm oil industry as eco-friendly, but activists warn forests are still being destroyed to make way for vast plantations.
As palm oil prices boom, Malaysia has mounted a campaign to counter allegations the crop is responsible for habitat destruction, pushing orangutans towards extinction and air pollution from slash-and-burn farming.
It insists palm oil is only grown on legal agricultural land and that criticism is an attempt by competitors to undermine growing demand for the commodity.
Environmentalists say while virgin rainforests are off-limits, tracts designated as “secondary forests” are not being spared.
Junaidi Payne from the World Wildlife Fund said the government’s stance is misleading and that the race to fulfill demand for palm oil risks causing further deforestation, both legal and illegal.
“It is actually a red herring to say that Malaysia does not convert rainforests to oil palm plantations,” Payne said at a conference on palm oil in Sabah state on Borneo.
Payne said that in the past 25 years, previously virgin forests that have been partially logged were downgraded to secondary forests, which are then deemed to be legal agriculture land.
“The success of palm oil production will have an impact on forest conservation as more land is set aside to cultivate the crop,” he said.
The orangutan, found only in Borneo and Indonesia’s Sumatra island, is threatened with extinction, say experts who point out that most of Malaysia’s orangutans live in secondary forests.
The Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) counters the allegations, saying 60 percent of Malaysia’s land is forested, while agriculture occupies just 19 percent.
“Every country has the right to develop 30 percent of their forest land to agriculture. So what is the issue?” MPOC chief executive officer Yusof Basiron said. “Records show that the UK has knowingly developed 70 percent of its land for agriculture, leaving less than 12 percent under forest.”