On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Raise the red flag

Even the tree’s trunks can be used for making furniture.

Palm oil can also be used to create biodiesel. Since 2007, all diesel sold in Malaysia must contain 5% palm oil, putting us at the forefront of promoting biodiesel.

But more importantly, the Malaysian palm oil industry earned a healthy RM60bil in 2010. This was an increase of RM10bil from 2009. Revenue is projected to reach RM80bil and the perception is that the industry will eventually be the country’s biggest money earner.

The income generated by the high price of palm oil has led to a mini economic boom in rural townships throughout the country and benefited the ordinary people.

In simple language, it means an assurance of jobs and income, with a guaranteed daily wage of RM90 in rural areas where the cost of living is low.

In contrast, as shown in some studies, the rural population of many developing countries often earns a mere RM7 per day and employment is sometimes limited or seasonal.

The fact is that while over one billion people have scarce access to food and jobs globally, in Malaysia, we rely on 300,000 foreigners to take on jobs we shun. This includes jobs in the palm oil industry.

In Malaysia, our concern is not lack of food but how to cut down on intake of carbohydrates to reduce our waistline. Slimming centres have become a multi-million ringgit business because of this.

For the foreign labourers working in oil palm plantations here, their employment means there will be food daily for over a million family members in Indonesia, Bangla­desh, the Philippines and other countries.

Oil palm is also important for the Malaysian smallholders and the retail business, which will enjoy the trickle-down effect. And the Government will gain as well, through the collection of corporate taxes, which are then used for education, health and infrastructure development.

It means a lot for the children of the smallholders and foreign workers who know they won’t have to go to bed hungry each night.

Over the past few months, however, their livelihood has been threatened by Western non-governmental organisations who have stepped up their campaign against Malaysia’s palm oil industry.

This time, they have widened their target audience to include even primary school children in the United States, Europe and Australia.

If the argument in the past was about health, this time the campaign has shifted towards the purported deforestation of land and the killing of orang utan. Naturally, these issues would be more emotionally appealing and fashionable given the global concern for environmental issues.

No one in his right mind would argue against protecting the environment but the red flag, rather than the green flag, has to be raised when the real issue is whether these NGOs are being funded by lobbyists from the soy bean, sunflower and other seed oil competitors.

There is a lot of hypocrisy here, really. Orang utans may have been affected but look at the shocking decline in the number of koalas in Australia as a result of human clearing and other factors.

It has been reported that the number of koalas has dropped by 95% since the 1990s and that only 43,000 of these tree-dwelling marsupial are left on the mainland. In southeast Queensland, the number has dropped from 25,000 to 4,000 in a decade. Just Google for more information.

Even the world’s 1.5 billion cows are being blamed. There’s a 400-page report quoting the United Nations, which has identified the world’s rapidly growing herds of cattle as a huge threat to the climate, forests and wild life. And they are being blamed for a host of other environmental crimes, too, from acid rain to the introduction of alien species, producing deserts to creating dead zones in the oceans, poisoning rivers and drinking water to destroying coral reefs.

The report by the Food and Agricultural Organisation, titled Livestock’s Long Shadow, surveys the damage done by cows, sheep, chickens, pigs and goats.

Livestock is responsible for 18% of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, more than cars, planes and all other forms of transport put together – and there’s a lot of cows and sheep in Australia, I believe.

The Independent newspaper in Britain reported that burning fuel to produce fertilisers to grow feed, to produce meat and to transport it, and clearing vegetation for grazing, produces 9% of all emissions of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas.

And wind and manure from livestock account for more than one-third of emissions of another gas, methane, which warms the world 20 times faster than carbon dioxide.

But I feel that the greatest contributor to global warming has been left out – the great appetite of developed countries for fossil fuel, which is essential for their continued economic performance. The need to continue their lifestyle contributes to the huge emission of CO2.

It makes them look intelligent talking about orang utan and deforestation in exotic Borneo, which many might not even be able to locate on the map, while drinking Dom Perignon at fancy parties after being dropped off by chauffeur-driven gas-guzzling limousines.