Growing up during the late 1980s, this writer used to visit his grandfather’s small oil palm estate in Batu Pahat, Johor, where his favorite activities were catching ikan puyu or the climbing perch fish and trapping burung wak-wak or white-breasted waterhen.
His grandfather Mohtar Haron, who is now 86, was well aware of the importance of sustainable palm oil production as he used to tell this writer that fauna such as climbing perch and white-breasted waterhen would have disappeared from there if he had used excessive chemical products to take care of his oil palm trees.
His plantation and the surrounding area’s ecosystem were kept intact by the wild owls that kept the pests away and the fallen palm fronds that were turned into organic fertilizer with the help of certain insects and animals.
Sabah, Malaysia’s biggest palm oil-producing state with a total planted area exceeding 1.35 million ha, is taking the necessary measures to position itself as a global leader in sustainable palm oil production.
According to the Sabah Socioeconomic Report 2019 published by the Department of Statistics Malaysia, its agriculture sector – which is the third-largest in the country – contributed to 16.1 per cent of the state’s RM85.4 billion gross domestic product that year.
Sabah’s palm oil industry – which constitutes 65.3 percent of Sabah’s agriculture sector – is among the state’s most important economic sectors that provide jobs and livelihood assurances to millions of Sabahans.
Last year, its palm oil production stood at 4.65 million tons, which comprised 6.2 per cent of the world’s palm oil production. Naturally, Sabah has not been exempt from widespread criticism, what with the international media often alleging that the opening of oil palm plantations is causing massive deforestation and loss of wildlife habitats in the state.
How does the state strike a balance between conserving the environment and boosting its palm oil industry? A crucial step taken by the state in this direction is the implementation of the Jurisdictional Certification of Sustainable Palm Oil (JCSPO) and establishment of the Jurisdictional Certification Steering Committee (JCSC) in 2016.
Central to the JCSPO is the jurisdictional approach which provides a structured approach to establishing wider commitments from stakeholders to sustainable palm oil practices state-wide.
The JCSC is co-chaired by Sabah Forestry Department and Sabah Natural Resources Office, while its members comprise representatives from the government and private sectors, and civil society.
The jurisdictional approach also seeks to align interests and coordinate the actions of the government, businesses, local communities and non-governmental organizations towards shared conservation, supply chain sustainability and green development goals to bring about a sustainable palm oil industry.
Sabah Forestry Department chief conservator of forests Frederick Kugan told Bernama the jurisdictional approach will be able to address environmental and social issues faced by the palm oil industry, as well as support the sustainability of the industry in the future.
“The JCSPO is a very important initiative to ensure conservation and sustainable development, and certification of palm oil production is necessary especially in addressing issues such as chemical use and labor standards,” he said.
According to Frederick, a larger perspective is needed to safeguard wildlife populations, forest resources and ecosystems.
“Thus, finding a common ground is vital so that nature, as well as the palm oil industry, benefit from each other.
“I think we have done much to achieve great conservation efforts in Sabah that can, in fact, benefit other sectors, especially palm oil,” he added.
The JCSPO initiative is a 10-year plan that aims to produce 100 percent Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified sustainable palm oil by 2025. To date, about 26 percent of Sabah-produced palm oil is RSPO-certified.
Helping estate owners
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Malaysia executive director and chief executive officer Sophia Lim said the JCSPO initiative will help the Sabah government to address deforestation in the oil palm supply chain by putting in place strategies, policies and measures to safeguard the forests.
“This is a crucial step in positioning Sabah and laying the foundation for the state as the global leader in sustainable palm oil (production),” she said.
One of WWF-Malaysia’s contributions towards the realization of the JCSPO initiative in Sabah is the Sabah Landscapes Programme, which supported the certification of 70,000 hectares of midsized plantations and smallholdings in the Tawau, Tabin and Lower Sugut landscapes.
“WWF-Malaysia has set up a dedicated sustainable palm oil team to provide technical support to growers located within the landscapes to form growers’ groups and subsequently guide them to undergo the RSPO group certification process.
“Through the living landscapes approach, we also work on advancing sustainable palm oil to include elements of conserving the orang utan and Bornean elephants, as well as supporting the management of protected areas and forest reserves within the landscapes,” said Lim.
With regard to wildlife conservation, one of the most common problems faced by oil palm estate owners in Sabah is the conflict between humans and wildlife, with local media having reported several incidents of Bornean elephants found dead in plantations, obviously killed by humans for ‘trespassing’ their land.
Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga said the holistic approach offered by JCSPO provides the platform for plantation companies and local communities to find solutions to the man-animal conflict and allow wildlife to coexist with humans and development.
“When elephants, for example, are squeezed into small areas without food and water, they will rampage through plantations and eat the crops. The JCSPO is our hope of ensuring a brighter future for wildlife species in Sabah,” he said.
He said having wildlife corridors that link the small patches of forests remaining in oil palm estates to wider forest habitats is the key to the survival of animals such as the orang utan stuck in the plantation landscapes, especially in the lowlands of Sabah.
Tuuga said these corridors are needed because the monoculture nature of oil palm plantations means that the plants cannot support species that are dependent on the forest environment.
“So the forest patches within plantations are important as the orang utan and other wildlife species use them for survival as well as to travel to the adjacent forest areas,” he said.
Sabah Assistant Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Datuk James Ratib, meanwhile, said the state government needs to formulate a clear policy on the palm oil industry.
“A clear policy for palm oil development is needed to make it sustainable. We also need to establish a Sabah Palm Oil Board if we want to be the main player in the palm oil industry,” he said.
According to James, several issues of concern have cropped up in view of the vibrancy of the state’s palm oil industry, one of which is the opening of illegal plantations by people who clear forests without any concern for the environment or sustainable practices.
“Some farmers are even opening oil palm plantations without owning any land grant, which can be troublesome when they want to sell the palm fruit bunches or get RSPO or JCSPO certification.
“That’s why better control is needed in this industry so that we can make it beneficial and sustainable for the people and the environment,” he added.