The Conservative Party’s ex-Environment Spokesman, Bill Wiggin, agreed to play a starring role in videos promoting Sime Darby, after enjoying a luxury trip to Malaysia sponsored by the company.
The palm oil giant, headed by former Deputy PM Musa Hitam, has been exposed as a major client of FBC Media, the disgraced British public relations company, which has now been axed by the Malaysian government and Sarawak, following our exposes into corrupt practices.
FBC boasted that it had managed to ‘cultivate’ and ‘influence’ prominent people to become ‘ambassadors’ to ‘champion’ Sime Darby, which has been trying to greenwash its image after a wave of international condemnation over deforestation caused by palm oil plantations.
The company lists Bill Wiggin, who was Conservative Shadow Environment Minister until mid-2010, as one of those ambassadors from the political arena.
We have established that Wiggins was jetted out to Malaysia in 2009 and given a tour of Sime Darby’s showcase ‘eco-plantation’ on Carey Island, before being whisked to Sabah to see the Orang Utan Sanctuary there.
Tour insiders have told us that Wiggin expressed it as a major personal ambition to cuddle a baby orang utan and gratefully responded to the hospitality with a near farcical performance starring as the reporter in a ten minute promotional video praising Sime Darby for its environmental credentials.
Excerpts from the same interviews with Wiggin were then used by FBC reporter Ryan Meltzer to illegally promote Sime Darby on CNBC’s World Business show, in a package which was disguised as a genuine news report about sustainable palm oil.
In fact, Sime Darby is the world’s largest palm oil producer and it owns vast plantations across Borneo in areas that used to be pristine jungle. Few of its plantations had been certified as being sustainable.
The company has also recently caused outrage and been forced to pay fines in Africa, where it is currently attempting to expand its operations, again at the expense of native people.
Wiggin seems to have willingly understood he was being used as part of a PR drive as Sime Darby attempted to get sustainability certification for its palm plantations in order to attract consumers in the UK and elsewhere. As he says:
“The purpose of my coming here was to learn about the process, which I’ve enjoyed doing, but I kind of knew what was going on. It was really to support a company that was going hell for leather to hit that sustainability target, to encourage the people who are doing the right thing, to emphasise that we in the UK want to buy their product when they have gone to the trouble of making it genuinely sustainable”!
It is perhaps no surprise then, that the report by Bill Wiggin on behalf of Sime Darby is blatantly one-sided and lacking in objectivity or balance. The palm oil giant, which has indisputably destroyed vast tracks of jungle since the 1970s is painted as a benign environmental force, while smaller operators (who can’t afford jolly PR trips for MPs) are castigated as the main environmental menace!
“One of the reasons why people are worried about palm oil is the orang utan. So, when you go into the sanctuary they tell you that it’s the big estates that are doing the right thing but it’s the little guys, the smallholders, the private individuals, who simply can’t afford to take any losses on their very small operation, where the problems lie!”
Wiggin gives no evidence that he has explored this issue, beyond what he has been told by Sime Darby employees.
He also fails to point out the fact that it is the vast plantations being rolled out across Borneo, thanks to massive investment and industrial scale logging, which have stripped out the jungle by the square mile and exterminated so many of his beloved orang utan.
Wiggin also fails to make any mention in his report of the greatest environmental threat to Borneo, which is corruption and bad governance by BN politicians, of which the Chairman of Sime Darby is one of the most prominent. Instead he gushes:
“We should be doing everything we can to support Sime Darby in its efforts to lead and from everything I’ve seen it’s quite clear that not only is this company leading, but Malaysia is also in a different league to some of the other palm oil producers. They’ve got proper government backing, proper government buy in, commitment, funding and all the right things are happening here!”
Has Bill Wiggin stopped to consider how the destruction of Sabah and Sarawak, under the governance of the party of Sime Darby’s political boss Musa Hitam, can in fact be classed as one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters of recent years ?
Has he likewise considered that the on-going destruction of Borneo in Kalimantan is being driven, to a very large extent, by the same Malaysian palm oil giants that have destroyed Sabah and Sarawak?
These companies include, of cause, Sime Darby, which has ripped out around 300,000 hectares of Indonesian rainforest and farmland to make plantations in recent years!
Ambassador Bill Wiggin
Given that Bill Wiggin MP was listed as having been ‘cultivated’ to become an ‘ambassador’ or ‘third party endorser’ for Sime Darby in FBC Media’s own promotional material, he can be said to have done a very good job on behalf of his hosts.
However, the constituents who pay him a salary to represent their interests back in the UK, might have questions about the thoroughness of his recommendations that they should buy Sime Darby products.
Sounding rather like advertising, Wiggin, in his capacity as Conservative Environment Spokesman emphases the company’s “virtuous activity”:
“I want, when I am a customer in the shops in the UK, to buy palm oil from a company like Sime Darby, who have produced it in a sustainable way…. Borneo is so full of natural treasures, how are we going to protect that if we don’t buy palm oil from people who are doing the right thing like Sime Darby?”
Wiggin is not the only prominent person targeted by FBC Media on behalf of Sime Darby and its other Malaysian clients. We have already exposed US economist Jeffrey Sachs as another prime catch as far as the PR company was concerned.
Sachs has appeared in a number of programmes for the BBC and CNBC, which had been commissioned by FBC clients. He also featured in a major newspaper advertisement promoting Sime Darby.
Jason Clay of WWF, also listed by FBC Media as one of its ‘champions’ for Sime Darby, is a major exponent of the controversial argument that the 100 top world brands can save the environment.
It is a view that might explain the reluctance of WWF to get involved in criticising large companies when they threaten the environment and the charity’s willingness to engage in working with them!
However, any involvement by Clay with FBC, or the others mentioned on the list, appears so far circumstantial. The list even includes British PM David Cameron!
Cameron attended an enterprise forum involving Sime Darby and organised by Conservative MP Andrew Cumpsty, a former lobbyist, who is also listed as one of FBC’s networking contacts.
Our letter to Bill Wiggin
Sarawak Report emailed Bill Wiggin late last year asking for comment on FBC’s claim that he had been recruited as an ‘ambassador’ for Sime Darby and questioning his uncritical claims about the company’s environmental record.
We also questioned the MP’s effusive praise of the company’s local school, which provides education for immigrant workers. Wiggin posed beneath huge signs situated around the school promoting the company at the children in classrooms and their main hall.
However, so far we have received no reply from the conservative MP!
These are the matters we posed to the UK MP in the email we sent
“Dear Bill Wiggin,
Earlier this year we exposed the scandal surrounding FBC Media, which was later covered extensively by the Independent and also the Mail and the Guardian. You may have noted that the BBC and CNBC subsequently severed their relationship with this PR/ TV production company, which has now gone into administration in the UK. You can see extensive coverage on the matter on the blogg www.sarawakreport.org .
It may have come to your attention that, as part of this coverage, we revealed documents featuring some of the ‘ambassadors’, which FBC boasted they had managed to recruit for Malaysia’s largest palm oil company Sime Darby. Your name was listed on their power point presentations as being one of these individuals.
We have viewed some of the films that you made with FBC Media at the time of your visit to some of Sime Darby’s company locations, including their showcase Carey Island plantation. These films include your contribution to Ryan Meltzer’s report for the World Business programme, which has now been cancelled by CNBC.
In the light of the content of these films we would like to ask you if you can comment on the claim that FBC Media was making to clients that they had ‘cultivated’ and ‘influenced’ you into becoming an ‘ambassador’ for Sime Darby?
We would be grateful if you could confirm the information which we have received, which is that your trip and private jet travel to Carey Island was paid for by Sime Darby?
We also understand that your stated motivation in visiting Borneo was to ‘cuddle an Orang Utan’. Are you aware that standard good practice in such circumstances is to restrain strangers from coming into contact with baby Orang Utans, because of the danger of passing them human infections?
Could we ask what wider research you had done into the background and history of Sime Darby’s plantations before you provided such effusive and un-qualified support for the company in the film made by FBC media? Very few of their plantations have yet, of course, to receive accreditation by the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil, controversial as that accreditation is in itself.
We ask this, because the devastating extent of deforestation in Borneo owing to the activities of Sime Darby and other major Malaysian Oil Palm growers, like IOI, in both East Malaysia and Kalimantan is clearly well-documented as being one of the primary causes of the destruction of habitat that is responsible for the wiping out of the Orang Utan.
You visited a school that was designed to educate the children of immigrant Indonesian workers. Sime Darby’s logo around the school is clearly featured in a somewhat totalitarian presence, yet you speak loudly in praise of the efforts of the plantation towards educating the children of its imported workers, as if it was the ultimate gesture in philanthropy.
Might we ask if you enquired as to the situation regarding the indigenous peoples of the region, who have been deprived by Sime Darby and other large companies of their native lands to make way for these plantations? Did you ask why it is that they have not received jobs or education in the same manner, or indeed why it is that so many of the Indonesian workers have been given Identity cards and voting rights in Sabah, whereas a very large proportion of the indigenous population have not?
Is it of concern to you that these immigrant workers have been told that to keep their jobs they need to vote for the governing BN party (whose former deputy Prime Minster is the current Chairman of Sime Darby)?
Did you stop to consider that, since Sime Darby is controlled by the Malaysian Government, education of local children is clearly the basic duty of either it or its owners?
You presented a very simple picture in the films that you made for FBC Media of a terrific company that is doing nothing but good in East Malaysia. Given that there is such an enormous weight of evidence to the contrary, in terms of human rights abuses against the native peoples of Borneo, whose welfare the British handed in trust to Malaysia at the time of independence in 1963; in terms of the world’s worst rate of deforestation and in terms of Sime Darby’s current activities in Africa and elsewhere, could you comment on just how much background research you did on the subject as Shadow Environment Minister before you agreed to the Sime Darby tour and the promotional video on their behalf?”