- Malaysia has lined up behind Indonesia on the Deforestation Regulations
- There is a new consensus among developing countries on pushing back on Western policies
- Western media organisations will need to re-set their narratives on deforestation.
Indonesia and Malaysia Line Up Against Brussels
Malaysia has thrown its weight behind Indonesia’s rebuke of the EU’s Deforestation Regulation.
Indonesia’s President Jokowi and Malaysian PM Anwar Ibrahim declared their position during the first meeting of the two leaders on January 9, stating that they “agreed to strengthen cooperation to boost markets and combat discrimination against palm oil.
Last week, Malaysian Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir told reporters:
“The EU deforestation policy is a step against good kinship. Jokowi’s speech has made it clear that […] the policy is of concern to ASEAN. That the EU cannot dictate. This is an opportunity for Indonesia and Malaysia to join forces and be united in our voices. We stand with Jokowi on this matter.”
A new found cooperation between the two may be a significant blow for the EU in the region. Although the EU-ASEAN Summit produced few substantive results, EU officials had pinned their hopes on stronger bilateral relationships.
The Deforestation Regulation may set this back, with Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister calling the regulation “a deliberate act by Europe to block market access, hurt small farmers and protect a domestic oilseeds market that is inefficient and cannot compete with the cost of palm oil.”
Indonesia and Malaysia have worked closely together on palm oil before, scuttling the EU’s hopes of a stronger partnership with ASEAN in 2019.
This new approach, alongside greater coordination among developing countries on forests, may put Western countries – and Western media organisations – on notice when it comes to palm oil and forests.
60 Minutes Falls for a Deforestation Myth
A case in point is the most recent special from current affairs stalwart 60 Minutes. It isn’t about palm oil, but it does cover a topic that is critically important to the industry: deforestation.
The episode highlights the possibility – called ‘an experiment’ by the show’s producers – of paying farmers to stop cutting down forests in order to preserve forests and the species within.
But this isn’t an experiment – it has been attempted several times before and has, for the most part, been unsuccessful.
The idea of REDD – reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation – was first raised at the UNFCCC in 2005.
At the time, it was hailed as an innovation: pay developing countries for the value of their standing forests, rather than cutting them. REDD then took a whole 10 years to become a part of the on the UN climate framework.
But the biggest problem with REDD was at its foundation. When it was first floated, deforestation was poorly understood. The key assumption among many was that developing countries cut trees for their timber – not as a starting point for agricultural land.
Nor was it well understood that local communities – indigenous or otherwise – might want to retain use rights for their land, rather than hand them over to wealthy nations.
It was precisely for this reason that groups such as REDD-Monitor have advocated against programs such as REDD.
The REDD programs that have eventually emerged are a world away from the idea of paying farmers directly for not cutting forests. They are, instead, broad programs aimed at managing conservation areas and improving sustainable forest management.
So, if this idea has failed in the past, why is it being revived by a major news network?
The answer is simple: in December, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) agreed on a new framework for biodiversity conservation going forward. The framework is non-binding, but the key symbolic commitments of preserving 30 per cent of land and ocean areas will be a key pressure point for NGOs and conservation groups going forward.
This will fall disproportionately on developing countries. Developing countries such as Indonesia still maintains around half of its land area as forests, compared with around 30 per cent in major EU economies such as Germany, France and Italy.
The revival of the idea of paying developing country farmers not to farm – and develop economically – has been described by development economists as ‘kicking away the ladder’.
Without the ability to grow food and improve rural development outcomes, programs such as REDD keep poor countries on a path of ‘green welfare’.
To underline what are essentially anti-poor views, 60 Minutes included comments from environmentalist Paul Ehrlich, whose predictions of environmental collapse have been consistently wrong and has on numerous occasions been directly or indirectly accused of racism in the New Yorker, Washington Post and among prominent left-wing groups — because of his attitudes towards developing countries.
So, what does this mean for palm oil in 2023? There are three key points.
First, the West is going to double down on its anti-developing country approach to palm oil and palm exports. The ‘kicking away the ladder’ approach is manifest in the EU’s Deforestation Regulation and will continue as it struggles economically.
Second, the developing world is in a stronger position to hold the rich world to account. As Indonesian President Jokowi emphasised in his speech after the EU-ASEAN summit, Indonesia is not interested in being dictated to on sustainability – and other ASEAN members are now showing their support.
Third, media coverage of Indonesia on deforestation and palm oil will need to change. Attacking developing countries for growing food at a time of high commodity prices, food shortages and recession is not going to cut through with the median voter. 60 Minutes should take notice.