Malaysia's palm oil industry, stung by global criticism over the environmental impact of rapidly expanding plantations, has launched a campaign to tell the world that it cares for forests and wildlife.
TANJONG MALIM, Malaysia -- Malaysia's palm oil industry, stung by global criticism over the environmental impact of rapidly expanding plantations, has launched a campaign to tell the world that it cares for forests and wildlife.
The world's largest plantation company, Synergy Drive, which is being formed through the merger of three state-run businesses, is leading the way, as a consumer backlash against palm oil could spell the end of booming demand for the product.
"We big plantations have always been accused of not looking after the rainforests," said Synergy Drive chief executive Ahmad Zubir Murshid, who spent a day last weekend trying to convince journalists of the firm's green credentials.
"What we are going to do is create sanctuaries of animals and birds so that they can co-exist with our plantations."
The industry-funded Malaysian Palm Oil Council has also chimed in, saying the nation has committed 20 million ringgit ($5.91 million) for conservation of wildlife, including the orangutans.
But conservationists are not entirely convinced, pointing out the industry has taken years to realise the damage it has done.
Friends of the Earth says almost 90 percent of the orangutan habitat has now disappeared and if the destruction continues, Asia's only great ape could become extinct in 12 years.
With palm oil prices up nearly 68 percent since January, 2006, plantations now cover about 4 million hectares in Malaysia, and firms are expanding fast into neighbouring Indonesia where they had 889,354 hectares in 2006.
Palm oil is used in a wide variety of products ranging from cooking to fuel oils.
Greenpeace says Indonesia had the fastest pace of deforestation in the world between 2000-2005, with an area of forest equivalent to 300 soccer pitches destroyed every hour.
Friends of the Earth questions U.K. supermarkets selling palm oil on their corporate social responsibility and has urged financiers screen future investments in plantations for adverse environmental affects.
This aggressive campaign by green groups is having its impact and palm producers are feeling the heat.
The Netherlands plans a certification system for the use of biomass materials, such as grains, sugars and vegetable oils, to guarantee their sustainability.
"Direct burning of palm oil for power generation in Europe has reduced by 50 percent mainly because of environmental concerns," said M. R. Chandran, an independent analyst and a former head of Malaysian Palm Oil Association.
Malaysia's plantation industry, which says the nation has 64 percent forest cover, is pushing its campaign and working with groups like WWF. "We are trying to get them to voluntarily give back to nature, by allocating some of the lands to build forest corridors for animals," said Dionysius Sharma, executive Director, WWF-Malaysia.
Diversified Sime Darby, which is being merged with Golden Hope and Kumpulan Guthrie, plans to plant millions of trees in a 400-hectare heritage park in northern Perak state with some rare rainforest varieties.
It has engaged a nursery that specialises in rare rainforest species. "We had some 3,000 species trees on peninsular Malaysia, but some of these are difficult to find," said James Kingham, who runs the nursery near Tanjong Malim, 100 km (62 miles) north of Kuala Lumpur.
Kingam showed, as he toured his 28-hectare nursery, a rare variety of wild lychee which at one time grew all over Malaysia.
(Additional reporting by Niluksi Koswanage)