No More Oil Palm Concessions In Sarawak?

“Chief Minister Abang Johari Tun Openg said the Sarawak government will no longer approve the opening of new oil palm plantations, as part of efforts to convince the European Union (EU) that the state is serious in conserving its environment..” [Borneo Post].

Broad statements are easy to deliver and this same promise was made (probably sincerely) by the late lamented Adenan Satem just before the last state election, only to be ignored.

So, Sarawakians need far more detail on what Abang Jo means by his present claims about ‘no more concessions’ and ‘zero corruption’, particularly since he has just handed yet another vast ten year road contract to  CMSB, which belongs to the family of Governor Taib.

However, in the spirit of Christmas which is dear to most Sarawakians, let us hope that enlightenment has indeed struck this younger leader.  As Sarawak Report has pointed out in recent articles the facts on the ground make very grim reading for the state. His predecessors logged out the fabulous forests rich with timber in an orgy of greed and carelessness.

Now supplies of saleable timber are in catastrophic decline and the max-profit, mono-culture mega-plantations, which ‘CEO of Sarawak’ Taib Mahmud saw as the next get even richer quicker scheme for himself and his cronies, are proving a tremendous flop.

Palm oil is now globally notorious for a start, as the chief minister has rightly acknowledged. Worse, the plantations in East Malaysia are particularly badly configured and relatively unproductive and are manned by massive companies using largely imported migrant labour – so much for ‘benefitting smallholders’. Sarawakians hate the plantations.

As for other agro-industrial solutions like Acacia plantations (hugely damaging to Sarawak’s soils) a recent expert assessment of these initiatives in Sarawak summarised them in one word: “failed”.

In a now saturated market for palm oil, where consumers in Europe are demanding labelling to help them not buy forest destroying products and the EU itself is phasing out bio-fuel it is hardly surprising that the news from platations across East Malaysia is that the crop is simply not even being harvested at the moment.

The giant Sarawakian companies who spread their timber grabs and plantation blight into Papua New Guinea have likewise started to neglect unprofitable plantations.

Restore Sarawak’s Precious Natural Wealth

So, Abang Jo is absolutely right to make the obvious U-turn that the situation now demands.  He is right that in 20 years many areas that are now sad and largely lifeless could be returned to much of their past glory, given the healing powers and swift growth of the tropical jungle.

It will take longer to restore these areas to the full glory of the 150 million year old jungle canopies that supplied the great trees Taib and his boys cut down and many of the wonderful species and larger animals are lost forever.  However, not all are lost and in this eleventh hour there are many unique and wonderful speciies of Borneo that can be rescued from extinction if we protect these areas NOW.

If Abang Jo wants to earn his place in the eternal history of his nation, well that is how he can do it, whilst Taib Mahmud will rot in infamy in his golden mausoleum.

Economic Sense

So, here is why reforestion is not only the right thing to do, gaining the respect of all the world, but it makes complete economic sense and in fact is the only way for Sarawak to get out of the economic hole greed has dug it into.

First, as the Chief Minister rightly pointed out, the best way to position the mega palm oil industry into a better light on the global markets is if the state and Malaysia as a whole start adopting a responsible as opposed to a downright greedy approach to forest managment.

By supporting the reforestation effort in a meaningful and responsible way the palm oil industry could also become part of the solution instead of just the problem – how about a green tax and some major sponsorship of re-wilding of animal corridors and river valleys?

Buying palm oil products could become less ‘toxic’ overnight and Abang Jo appears to have got the message:

As you know, our oil palm reputation is not that good in the EU. I met ambassadors from the EU, I told them about our conservation efforts, and they said if we have that management they will (consider to) buy our palm oil, provided that we can prove that we are also conserving our environment. [Borneo Post]

Second, because of the climate crisis, which has been driven as much by deforestation as anything else in recent years, there is genuinely the prospect of seeing money hanging from Sarawak’s trees. A properly negotiated carbon capture deal could allow Sarawakians to literally put their feet up and just watch their trees grow, whilst being paid for the amount of carbon they manage to capture in the process of becoming big tall canopies again.

Better, ordinary Sarawakians could also earn from replanting degraded areas and tending the growing forests.  Other economic opportunities would include eco-tourism, the use and harvesting of forest products, a revived fishing industry, scientific work and so much more. The Dayak know more than anyone about the jungle and the world needs to learn their skills.

Restored natural forests could later easily survive careful sustainable logging, achieving much higher prices for limited timber that once Taib flogged off cheap.  Uneconomic palm plantations, which face the prospect of diminishing productivity as the earth erodes and becomes exhausted through cultivation, could cash in on grants for re-wilding – after all, philanthropists and corporates and governments across the world are lining up eager to help do just that.

So the opportunities are there. The questions are over how thorough and sincere this chief minister really is about his present claims?

What Does ‘No More Concessions’ Really Mean?

He needs to lay out exactly what he means by this promise to halt more oil palm plantations, given that earlier this year his government made plain to Malaysia’s Minister for Primary Industries that there are over 600,000 hectares of existing concessions handed out by his government that are yet to be razed and laid out as plantations.

Abang Jo made clear, the Minister has said, that there were no plans to halt or rescind those licences over a vast area of remaining (laregly degraded) forest areas in the state.

Although few of them are likely to bother to lay out more unprofitable palms, the concession holders (the largest being the son of Taib Mahmud who was corruptly handed tens of thousands of hectares for free) will grab the profit from the timber if given half a chance to do so.

Time for Transparency 

So, if Abang Jo wants to be taken seriously alongside Sabah and the rest of Malaysia as Sarawak seeks to get in line to nab a good forest partnership agreement with global green investors in our climate, he needs to demonstrate that he is willing and committed when it comes to good governance and delivery.

He needs to open up the books, most particularly in the Land Registry, together with all the concessions handed out by the Land & Survey Department/ LCDA.  Given the past secrecy and lack of oversight, all those existing 600,000 hectares of current concessions both for timber and oil palm need to be frozen and scrutinised. Corrupt deals should be rescinded (that should account for the entire 600,000 hectares).

The avoided deforestation of 600,000 hectares of tropical forest is worth a great deal of potential negotiated grants to the State of Sarawak, money that could go to the indigenous folk, who have suffered for decades under oppressive land laws brought in by Abang Jo’s predecessor-but-one.

Reforms could follow and all of this enlightenment could not only restore the natural wealth and productivity of the state but it could put cash in the pockets of Dayak people, offered to them by a world that needs to see our forests grown back fast.

Only the timber tycoons, the Taibs and their hangers on could face something to lose if Abang Jo were to do an honest and open job of negotiating a proper Forest Deal for Sarawak…. but haven’t they got enough already?

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