WHILE the recently-ended climate talks in Denmark may have been met with dismay by environmentalists, oil palm planters are relieved that calls to curb planting have been rejected.
This is said to come under a scheme called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing countries (REDD). The World Bank had wanted this in place after the Kyoto Protocol, the current international pact to combat global warming, expires at the end of 2012.
Under the Kyoto Protocol palm oil millers can earn carbon credits if they install mini power plants at mills powered by biomass. REDD promises to continue this, but with a condition to "avoid deforestation", a clause that could be interpreted to mean "no more expansion of oil palm plantations".
But there are also bodies that are making attempts to show that green groups like Greenpeace can't see the forest for the trees.
World Growth (WG), a pro-development NGO, is lobbying against any international binding agreements that seek to curb oil palm planting under the guise of "saving rainforest". In an interview from Copenhagen, WG chairman Alan Oxley said Greenpeace, Wetlands International and Friends of the Earth's anti-palm oil lobby was "immoral" because their actions hurt the potential income of some five million oil palm planters in Malaysia and Indonesia.
At the Copenhagen conference, WG released a report titled "Collateral Damage: How the Bogus Campaign Against Palm Oil Harms the Poor". It essentially found that palm oil production, a sustainable vegetable oil and essential food staple, raises living standards and reduces poverty in developing countries.
"Planting oil palm trees help alleviate poverty because palm oil can generate returns of about US$3,000 per hectare (RM10,320) while other food crop generates less than US$100 (RM340)," he said. A former career diplomat, Oxley is also chairman of the national Australian APEC Study Centre, one of Australia's leading economic researcher based at RMIT University, Melbourne.
Malaysia's oil palm plantations, which directly employ 580,000 jobs, supports two million livelihoods. "Based on the track record in Malaysia and Indonesia, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad) is funding a project in Uganda to test the effectiveness of oil palm planting as a poverty eradication tool," he said.
Greenpeace, Wetlands and Friends of the Earth are currently running elaborate campaigns against palm oil, pressuring developing nations to reduce or even eliminate the land conversion necessary to cultivate this basic food ingredient. These green activists allege that expansion of oil palm plantations into forest and peatland areas poses a serious threat to the global climate.
"No less than 10 million of Indonesia's 22.5 million ha of peatland have already been deforested and drained," Greenpeace said in a statement posted on its website. It went on to say expansion plans in Riau province have the potential of triggering a "climate time bomb". Riau's peatland forests store a massive 14.6 billion tonnes of carbon - equivalent to one year's global greenhouse gas emissions.
Without providing data that can be verified, these Europe-based activists also alleged destruction of Indonesia's peatland forests alone accounts for 4 per cent of global annual emissions. They placed Indonesia as the third biggest polluter, after the US and China.
Greenpeace's latest posting said it wants President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to submit to international civil society pressures and stop the further destruction of Indonesia's rainforests and peat lands.
Washington-based WG, a non-governmental organisation that lobbies for free trade, say that not all within international civil society agree with Greenpeace, Wetlands and Friends of the Earth. It considers these accusations and others levied by Greenpeace, Wetlands and Friends of the Earth as wrong, cannot be substantiated or severely exaggerated.
"Our finding reveal, at best, they're a misunderstandings of facts and economics and, at worst, intentional distortion of the truth in an attempt to advance radical efforts to halt any conversion of forested land," Oxley said.
In contrast to the green activists' claims, the fact is oil palm trees are highly sustainable - generating 10 times the amount of energy consumed. Compare that to rapeseed, which produces only three times the energy input; and soyabean which requires 10 times more land to yield the same amount of vegetable oil.
"And if these 'green' credentials aren't enough, the report also shows that oil palm plantations are very effective carbon sinks - a stark contrast to the propaganda by Greenpeace, Wetlands and Friends of the Earth".
In addition to these surprising revelations, WG's report demonstrates that poverty and not oil palm planting, is the major cause of deforestation and loss of orangutan habitat."This latest findings by forestry experts show two-thirds of forest clearance is driven by low income people in poor countries searching for land, habitation and food production," he said.
Oxley concluded that some green groups are willing to advance potentially devastating propositions so casually - especially when their implementation could cripple an industry that is able to reduce poverty and raise living standards - calls into question their morals. "What Greenpeace, Wetlands and Friends of Earth are doing is not green, it's simply immoral and hurting the poor."
"If developed countries want developing nations to sign on to a new global strategy to reduce greenhouse gases, they must advance strategies that raise living standards and not regard poverty increase as unavoidable collateral damage," Oxley said.
Tim Wilson, founder of SustainableDev.org, shares the same view. Making reference to an 11-paged report titled "Palming off livelihoods?: The misguided campaign against palm oil" , Wilson said proposals at the UN Copenhagen Conference that stop forest conversion will only keep the world's poor trapped in poverty.
He talked about Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth's campaign activities ranging from protesting shipment of palm-based animal feed into New Zealand, to lobbying European officials to ban usage of palm oil as biofuel to getting palm oil advertisements taken off from television networks in the UK.
Although the lobby against palm oil is multi-faceted, it has one clear objective - to reduce palm oil consumption in western markets, like Europe, the US, Australia and New Zealand. "Deliberately reducing consumption of palm oil will only harm poor farmers' livelihoods and their capacity to lift themselves out of poverty," he said.
On nutrition, Wilson said palm oil is a necessary dietary staple for the poor because it is a rich source of Vitamin A. "Since palm carotenes is essential in boosting children's immune system, any deficiency can lead to a million deaths per year among the poor in developing nations," he said.