01/05/2008 (Mongabay.com) - Last month's sustainability conference sponsored by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) revealed a rift between some planters and the industry marketing organization.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, several oil palm plantation executives distanced themselves from a video created by the MPOC as well as closing remarks by the group's CEO, Tan Sri Datuk Dr. Yusof Basiron. They said the video and comments provided ammunition for NGOs that accuse the MPOC of greenwashing.
"MPOC must get rid of that video," said a senior executive with a major plantation firm. "A few of the statements are so blatantly untrue that it undermines our credibility It doesn't matter that some of the video is accurate. Environmental groups are going to focus on the obvious fallacies and use them against us."
The executive was referring to claims that Malaysian palm oil has always been sustainable and has not resulted in conversion of tropical forest in Malaysia. The video also claimed that 60 percent of Malaysia is covered by rainforest -- a number disputed by official government figures -- and that oil palm plantations sequester nearly as much carbon as the country's rainforests.
"Dr. Basiron's comments are a liability," said a senior researcher with an agrochemicals firm. "Most of what he said was accurate but when he makes ridiculous claims on biodiversity loss and deforestation, it only serves to help the greenies and tarnish the image of the MPOC."
"We needs to be as straight-forward as possible," he continued. "Making false claims is when the MPOC gets in trouble with the international NGOs."
An executive from another plantation company said he was surprised that the MPOC made the same mistakes with the new video as it did with a previous advertisement that was labeled misleading by Britain's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
"You'd think they would have gotten the second video right," he said.
Controversial statements by the CEO
In closing remarks at the conference, Dr. Basiron made several controversial claims.
"All land can be reforested. There is no reason why you just can't plant a new forest," he said, ignoring the difficulty of re-establishing forests on degraded lands.
"With deforestation, all the animals move to the forest," he said. "They don't die."
Dr. Basiron went on to say that the Malaysian palm oil industry has "always" been sustainable and hasn't resulted in deforestation. He dismissed efforts to increase biodiversity on agricultural lands -- a position at odds with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil's (RSPO) stated goals.
Several plantation executives suggested that it would be more productive to focus on well-established facts to bolster the international perception of Malaysian palm oil. For example, highlighting that most palm oil goes toward food production, not biofuels; that it is the world's most productive oilseed with a carbon balance favorable to other oil crops including rapeseed and soy; and that palm oil plays an important role in poverty alleviation and rural development.
"Basiron should avoid the provocative but inaccurate statements," said one executive with a medium-sized plantation firm. "It does nothing for our reputation."
"Dr. Basiron's comments threatened to undermine any goodwill that was achieved by the conference," said a representative from a subsidiary of an American company. "The MPOC video is perfect ammunition for NGOs in that it gives them material for attacking us."
One environmental group seemed to agree.
"The video is a great tool for us," said the head of a wildlife conservation group.
The International Palm Oil Sustainability Conference which met in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia from April 13-15, sought to address criticism from environmental groups over the sustainability of the industry.
The MPOC is working to distinguish Malaysian palm oil as a premium brand relative to palm oil produced elsewhere, especially in Indonesia. Environmentalists say large tracts of forest are being converted for new plantations in Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo, New Guinea, and Sumatra, putting rare and endangered biodiversity at risk.