By Teresa Kok

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia--The callous remarks of Zuraida Kamaruddin “Orang Utan will kill you” have sparked widespread criticisms and discussion in the social media. 

She made this remark when she recalled her conversation with the Malaysian Ambassador in Jeddah that the school textbooks in Arab countries accused oil palm plantations of killing Orang-Utans and contained other negative sentiments as well.  

Since the collapse of the PH government and Khairuddin Aman Razali's accession to the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities (MPIC), the ministry has been trying to aggressively promote palm oil in the Middle East. 
Khairuddin even set up a new Commodities promotion office including for Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) activities in Saudi Arabia. This is in addition to two other existing MPOC offices for the Middle East, namely in Istanbul and Cairo.

I believe the shift of promotion to Arab countries was in part to counter prevailing strong anti-palm oil sentiments throughout the European Union. Also, the objective was to try and capitalise our relationship with OIC countries to further push palm oil into their markets.

Little did our then minister Khairuddin and current minister Zuraida appreciate that the anti-palm oil sentiments have already spread to Arab society. In much of the Middle East, palm oil hardly finds favour among housewives who prefer corn and olive oils instead. 
In their minds, palm oil carries the stigma of a less healthy fat. It is however the hotel and catering sectors and food manufacturers who prefer palm oil for its functional properties and lower pricing.

Further, the European accusations that palm oil cultivation destroys the environment and kills wildlife has long found its way into the school text books of the Arabs.
Palm oil and palm based products rank among the top 10 in terms of their export value for Malaysia. Thus this is an important economic activity and a major contributor to the nation’s GDP.  
If Malaysia as a major palm oil producing country does not devise new and comprehensive strategies to counter the worldwide anti-palm oil sentiments, it will surely jeopardise our palm oil industry and hurt millions dependent upon this commodity.                    
I hope the experience Zuraida Kamaruddin has had in Arab countries will make her understand and adopt my earlier formulated policy of halting and capping the expansion of oil palm plantations in Malaysia and utilise the palm oil industry’s generous cess fund under the Malaysian Palm Oil Green Conservation Fund (MPOGCF) to replant forest trees and carrying out other green conservation projects while caring for the wildlife impacted by these human activities.  
After I left the ministry, I regret to note the slow progress in the replanting of forest trees in the 2,500 hectares of degraded forest in Lower Kawag in the district of Lahad Datu, Sabah; as well as the project of planting more elephant grass and to create an elephant-corridor in the northern region of Sabah. 
These well-defined programs which already were welcomed by the NGO community and conservationists were not taken seriously by the former Minister Khairuddin Aman Razali.

These projects were also formulated to counter negative perceptions against Malaysia and portray a more caring side of the industry that is currently less known .
Lack of strategies in forest tree replanting and wildlife conservation

In the written answer to my question on the projects under the Malaysian Palm Oil Green Conservation Fund (MPOGCF) in the last parliament sitting, the minister said 13 projects are being identified. 
However, the board of trustees of MPOGCF or the minister seem to have no strategies in using the fund. The projects claimed as tree plantings or reforestation seemed scattered all over the place in Malaysia and may not bring the desired results or value..
There’s a serious lack of focus in using the funds. For example:

-RM2 million was spent in replanting forest trees in Putrajaya;

-RM20,000 spent in planting forest trees in Melaka;  

-RM2.85 million spent in reforestation in central forest spine in Kelantan;

-RM1.2 million spent in replanting of trees in Taman Botani Kuala Terengganu;

-RM301,305 spent in publishing a guide book on Best Management Practices in relation to management of wild lives in plantation areas.  

If the industry players’ funds for green conservation projects are being spent all over the places in Malaysia and not focusing on critical areas where human and wildlife conflicts are  happening, the ministry is seen as carrying out projects without strategies. It will be difficult for the ministry or Malaysia palm oil industry players to boast about the environment and wildlife conservation efforts in Malaysia.

I urge Minister Zuraida to examine and scrutinise the green conservation projects under MPOGCF, and instead carry them out systematically and with a proper communication strategy in mind, so that Malaysia can cite some of the impactful projects to counter the untrue accusations against palm oil in many parts of the world.