The Rise of the Southeast Asia Tigers

The rise of the Southeast Asian tigers in Indonesia and Malaysia owe in no small part, to their prominent roles as major sources for vegetable oils in the global market.

As the two countries celebrate their independence from colonial masters this month, amidst the calls for the decolonization of conservation and the rights of developing countries to reach par with the rich North, there remains a stubborn stain of the colonial past who insist, that development should not threaten orangutans, tigers and elephants in Southeast Asia.

It is therefore completely reasonable that the palm oil industries in Malaysia and Indonesia have lashed out at these remnants of colonialists who insist that climate change should be fought at the expense of better livelihoods for Southeast Asians.

This is a decades old debate with the fossil fuel industry funding needy groups like Rainforest Foundation Norway and T&E with the deep pockets of the industry going against an industry which is fragmented at best and at worst, producers struggling to keep their heads above water in the media onslaught against palm oil.

Trial by Popular Media for Causing Climate Change and Extinctions

Russia and Brazil are burning in this August of 2020. None of it can be blamed on palm oil. Yet in the minds of decision makers in developed countries, palm oil is to blame for the planet’s woes based on old stories from 2015 when Indonesia suffered from the effects of El Nino along with other countries. Redoubled efforts by Indonesia to try and control bushfires have been successful in subsequent years to a point where natural fire occurrences are being fought even before they occur.

These same natural wildfires are happening with a greater frequency affecting much larger areas in non palm oil producing countries. Yet it is expected that saving forests in Southeast Asia can in some magical way, absorb the emissions from countries thousands of miles away from Malaysia and Indonesia.

Climate change caused by the environmental impact of people in developed countries poses a greater threat to Southeast Asian forests than the palm oil industry. This is a tough message to get across to netivists who still think orangutans are going extinct. The inconvenient truth on orangutan extinctions is that the alarmist calls are false. Orangutans which are found only in Malaysia and Indonesia are protected not only by law but also with solid conservation efforts by both countries.

Unfortunately, these conservation efforts have received little attention. Social media continues to fall for misinformation following the pattern which the founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, identified when he said:

“Facts travel slowly on social media compared with “negative” misinformation, which makes it difficult for companies like Facebook and Twitter to strike a balance”

Decolonizing Conservation a Necessary Step Towards Sustainable Development

The orangutans are alive and well in Malaysia and Indonesia. Their numbers are well above those of endemic wildlife in countries in the Rich North or other developing tropical countries that produce little palm oil.

The colonial mark on conservation remains as foreigners continue to dictate what should or should not be done as they place conservation over the needs of local peoples. Reports like this copy from the IUCN are used to question whether the national strategies for conservation are adequate. It should be noted here that the IUCN report has used the logo of the Ministry of Environment, Indonesia without its consent or knowledge.

One-sided opinions on what developing countries should be doing is unfortunately also rearing its head in certification schemes for “sustainable” products. Driven by foreign environmental groups who claim the forests of other countries as “theirs” the popular adoption of the No Deforestation pledge by consumer brands is damning impoverished countries whose only means to better livelihoods is to use their natural capital.

The sheer absurdity of the No Deforestation pledge in commodities is exacerbated when the demands are not matched with financial assistance for impoverished countries.

The problem lies not only with palm oil but with all tropical commodities including coffee, tea and rubber where low prices have made it almost impossible for producing countries to make a living profit off these crops. Banana producers in Latin America nailed the issue on the head when they squared off against yet another certification scheme when they accused the certification body of failing to take into account the challenges faced by producers.

Independence and The Right to Stand with Nations

Thankfully for Malaysia and Indonesia and other developing countries, there is a growing movement among net savvy citizens in developed countries that sustainability must include the rights of peoples to govern their forests.

As Indonesia and Malaysia celebrate their independence from colonial powers this August 17 and 31 respectively, it is the voices of these friends that will add special joy to the independence-day celebrations in 2020.

Both countries have been able to develop economically without the need for massive hand outs from developed nations. The contributions of the palm oil industries towards this achievement is most significant when seen in the light of how far Malaysia and Indonesia has come and still have biodiversity levels and forest canopy that are underrated by the developed countries.

Both Malaysians and Indonesians should find special pride in how their countries have become an important source of vegetable oils that have the potential to not only feed the growing human population at a reasonable cost and power global energy needs at the same time.

Every oil palm farmer in Malaysia and Indonesia that has toiled under the mid day sun, every farmhand that has hauled heavy loads of fresh fruit bunches on their backs, every wife and child that had to forego family times together should find special pride on these Independence Days of 2020.

Their hard labor and personal sacrifices are enabling the Tiger Cub economies of Malaysia and Indonesia to stand proudly together with the Asian Tiger Economies which have all benefitted from their sweat and tears.

We Are All in This Together

The Covid19 pandemic this year serves as a hard-hitting reminder that we are a global community. There can be no “us against them” if we are to find solutions to fight climate change and the threats it poses. Saving rainforests in developing tropical countries against climate change and future pandemics will be of little use if the fossil fuel emissions from developed countries remain unchecked.

Indonesia and Malaysia, as dominant producers of palm oil have solutions in hand but these will need the support of other countries especially in the Rich North. These colonies that Europe and the UK once depended on to deliver what their own lands could not produce, remain a ready source for a sustainable future that includes all of us on this fragile earth.

As we celebrate Independence Day in Indonesia and Malaysia this August of 2020, we wish all Indonesians and Malaysians Happy Independence Day! Selamat HUT RI Ke-75! Selamat Hari Kebangsaan!