Top UK ‘Think Tank’ Staged BN’s Latest PR Stunt On Palm Oil – INVESTIGATION

Alfred Jabu flew out Sarawakians to dress up as grateful "rural folk" and parade at the IEA as people who had benefitted from SALCRA
Alfred Jabu flew out Sarawakians to dress up as grateful “rural folk” and parade at the IEA as people who had benefitted from SALCRA

The prominent London-based free market ‘think tank’, the Institute of Economic Affairs, has been put in an embarrassing position over an apparent conflict of interest, thanks to remarks by Sarawak’s Deputy Chief Minister, Alfred Jabu.

Jabu, in a speech earlier this week, boasted about his “world-wide acknowledgement” by the Institute, thanks to being granted a platform in January, at the launch of a supposedly independent report on palm oil, commissioned by the IEA.

Sarawak Report has now investigated the matter and uncovered compromising links between the on-going PR campaigns sponsored by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council and this IEA report.

The report, entitled “Commercial Agriculture: Cure or Curse? Malaysian and African Experience Contrasted”, reflects the arguments of the MPOC and praises the Malaysian palm oil industry, claiming it “has a good record with regards to sustainability”:

 “Certainly, some loss of forest and wildlife habitat has occurred as a result of the expansion of agriculture, including oil palm, in Malaysia, but the extent of this loss appears to have been exaggerated. The majority of palm oil plantations are located on the Malaysian mainland peninsula – nowhere near the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo where the Borneo orang-utans are to be found. Over 50 per cent of Malaysia’s land area remains under forest cover and many areas are given full protection against logging”[IEA Report, October 2013]

Massive deforestation - the reality of Sarawak's oil palm industry
Massive deforestation – the reality of Sarawak’s oil palm industry

The author of the report, which clearly defies all the known evidence about this most rapidly deforested area on the planet, is a member of the Institute’s own Editorial Board, Keith Boyfield, who told Sarawak Report that the entire report was commissioned by the IEA, which published it as a ‘discussion paper’.

Yet Boyfield, who operates his own consultancy, has enjoyed two recent trips to Sarawak, funded by none other than the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC).

Not only that, it turns out that Boyfield was accompanied on at least one of these occasions by senior staff of the IEA, including the chief operating officer, Glynn Brailsford, who also enjoyed the hospitality of the MOPC.

And their chief host on these trips?  None other than Boyfield’s fellow panellist at the IEA event, Deputy Chief Minister Alfred Jabu, the Chairman of the controversial SALCRA (Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority)!

Keith's Malaysian Government host Alfred Jabu enjoying a platform at the IEA with the launch of its research on palm oil
Keith’s Malaysian Government host Alfred Jabu enjoying a platform at the IEA with the launch of its ‘research paper’ on palm oil

Only natural!

Boyfield has confirmed to Sarawak Report that his trip was funded by the Malaysian Government:

“We got an invitation from the Malaysian Government….They [the MPOC] certainly were responsible for organising some of it. That was the background. The study was commissioned by the IEA”

When informed that there have been a number of PR drives of this nature by the MPOC, Boyfield appeared to contradict the IEA’s ethical guidelines, which bann government sponsorship and tied funding, saying:

“Well that’s only natural!”

He also confirmed he was hosted and escorted by SALCRA to their own plantations. SALCRA has forced thousands of native customary land owners into statutory ‘joint ventures’ with the state government to grow palm oil with highly controversial outcomes.

The trip in April 2012 was variously described in Sarawak’s government controlled media as a “press trip” (Borneo Post), a trip of “international experts” (Star) and as “a visit by an 8 member delegation of the IEA” (Sarawak Monitor)

Hearing SALCRA's side of the story - but was this genuine or "tied" research?
Hearing SALCRA’s side of the story – but was this genuine or “tied” research? [The Star Archive]
 Rock solid rules on ‘tied funding’

These visits and links to the Malaysian Palm Oil Council by the author of the report and “fellow” of the IEA clearly breech the purpose of the Institute’s own “rock solid rules” against any “tied funding” to research or government sponsorship, as explained by a spokeswoman for the Institute this week:

in terms of our funding we don’t take any tied money, so the paper would have been commissioned purely on the merit of the work that is in it.  And again we don’t accept any money from government or government agencies” 

Responding to our queries, the spokeswoman admitted that given the clear involvement of the MPOC and Jabu in Boyfield’s research and the IEA’s own compromising links, “it is a very complex and inter-twined matter”.

She added “I understand obviously that it may be the case that the conclusions in Keith’s paper aren’t necessarily a true reflection of how things are, and that may well be to do with a number of other factors, but in terms of the relations we have, we did not take any tied money”.

Posing as representatives of SALCRO "smallholders" at the IEA
Posing as representatives of SALCRO “smallholders” at the IEA

It is a weak position to take and the Institute’s will have been further embarrassed by the fact that Jabu and the Malaysian Palm Oil Council have not hesitated to extract maximum positive PR from both the IEA visits to Borneo and the resulting return trip to London to launch the IEA’s positive report on Malaysia’s record.

‘Native smallholders’ flown to the UK

To take advantage of the IEA event the MPOC flew over three “Sarawak smallholders” to join Alfred Jabu on stage.

The MPOC named the trio on their promotional ‘faces of palm oil’ Facebook page, as Thomas Lamit, Rebecca Lambet and Briku Busang.

All three dressed up in tribal costume for the evening, in order to present themselves to the British onlookers as delighted native beneficiaries of the SALCRA ‘joint venture’ programmes.

Later, the same trio dressed in ordinary clothes, posed outside the Houses of Parliament to record a You Tube video, in which they took turns to condemn NGOs and to boast how they now have new homes and cars, thanks to oil palm and SALCRA.

This video, entitled ‘Human Faces of Palm Oil’, was sponsored by SALCRA and the MPOC.  In it the lead speaker claims, untruthfully, that “palm oil cultivation in Sarawak is done on land already cleared long ago, so there is no destruction of forest”.

Apologists for SALCRA attacking NGOs in London
Malaysian Government funded this “smallholder’s” trip to the UK to attend the IEA event and produce promotional material on oil palm

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 14.36.25

In the same video Rebecca Lambet describes her own family’s rich new lifestyle, including multiple car ownership.

These are circumstances that bear little relation to the reality of life for most dirt poor Dayaks living on SALCRA plantations.

Furthermore, these PR friendly “smallholders'” are noticeably advanced English-speakers, considering they are supposed to be rural folk.

Despite the IEA’s attempt to distance themselves from “tied funding” these ‘faces of palm oil’ clearly had their trip funded by the Malaysian public.

PR dividends for the Malaysian Oil Palm Industry 

It is therefore clear is that Keith Boyfeild and his IEA event have just provided the latest platform for yet another publicly funded publicity stunt by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council in their on-going ‘greenwash campaign’ promoting palm oil.

And the MPOC generated publicity around Boyfield’s Sarawak visits wholly undermines any attempts by the IEA to claim distance or objectivity for their research.

Boyfield and Jabu on his 'press trip' in 2012.  He lavished praise to the Sarawak media about BN's record in Sarawak and attacked foreign criticism about human rights and the environment.
Boyfield (3rd left) and Jabu on his ‘press trip’ in 2012. In the article he lavished praise on BN’s record in Sarawak, saying it was time to “correct misperceptions in western countries”

For example, during his MPOC funded visit in 2012, Boyfield was quoted extensively by the KTS-owned Borneo Post (below), who portrayed him as a senior international journalist, relentlessly praising the Sarawak state government and its record on logging, oil palm and the environment:

“The state government should do more to promote the positive things it has been doing with regards to nature conservation to correct misperceptions, especially among western countries…Keith Boyfield, the spokesperson for a delegation of foreign media to the state, said…

Sarawak oil palm expert, thanks to his week long trip?
Sarawak oil palm expert, thanks to his week long trip?

He opined that at the moment Sarawak had been too modest in its campaign to tell the world about its conservation efforts, and because of that it had been subjected to criticisms particularly in Britain and Europe about the way oil palm plantations were being developed here…

“Most of the things we hear about are always threats to the habitats and also constant theme of the elimination of mangrove swamps and rainforests when in actual fact that doesn’t appear to be the case,” he said...

Boyfield, who is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and other leading newspapers and journals including Financial Centres International, said before this there had been a lot of criticisms in Great Britain and Europe about the way oil palm plantations were being developed in Malaysia and Indonesia…

“There also have been sort of view from people in Britain that Malaysians or the people of Sarawak are cutting down all the virgin rainforests and eliminating the habitats for mammals like orang utans so that they could grow oil palm,” he noted.

He explained that the purpose of the delegation was basically to see with their own eyes whether some of the claims and accusations made in the western media corresponded to reality, saying what they discovered proved that those reports were untrue.”[Borneo Post 28/4/12]

Boyfield’s quoted opinions on these matters appear to have been furnished by his week long visit, hosted by SALCRA and being shown round SALCRA plantations by Alfred Jabu. They contradict widely known facts and betray a lack of genuine investigation on the ground.

Indeed his own reports on Twitter at the time focused less on the conditions in dirt poor Dayak longhouses and more on his sponsored accommodation in the Taib family’s Hilton Hotel!

Report from the ground? - excited tweets from Boyfield about his luxury experience of Sarawak.
Report from the ground? – excited tweets from Boyfield about his luxury experience of Sarawak in Kuching’s Hilton

A bit of time in the interior of Sarawak would surely have informed Mr Boyfield a little better, because according more quotes in the Borneo Post, he then came out with the astonishing claim that the state’s oil palm plantations were merely conversions from the traditional rubber plantations and that the virgin jungle remains intact!

“This is because from what we see so far is it appeared that your palm oil plantations have actually switched from other commodities such as rubber and now you have been cultivating palm oil instead of other commodities.

“It is not so much of you cutting down lots of primary rainforest as claimed by some western media,” he [Boyfield] commented [Borneo Post]

Fact check for Keith Boyfield

These remarks by Boyfield were repeated throughout the Sarawak media at the time and also later when the IEA report was produced.

One widely disseminated article was entitled “British experts say criticisms from foreign NGOs on environment are exaggerated”:

British experts say criticisms from foreign NGOs on environment are exaggerated

“The Institute of Economic Appeal (IEA) has produced a report entitled “Commercial Agriculture: Is It A Cure Or A Curse, Malaysian and African Experience Constructed” by Keith Boyfield.  

The report highlights the roles played by SALCRA in spearheading a move to develop native customary right land into commercial plantation….. This very favorable report was produced by The Institute of Economic Appeal an Independent Body following a visit by its 8-member delegation to Sarawak sometime in April 2012, 

During the visit, members of the delegation led by Mr. Keith Boyfield had dialogue sessions and discussions with members of local business community, representatives of statutory bodies and general public including participants in the land development schemes. 

They visited Palm Oil Plantation at Sungai Stengang in Stungkur, conducted interviews with many SALCRA scheme participants and visited Palm Oil Mill. After visiting Sarawak they visited Peninsular Malaysia for the same purpose.

Great PR material for BN's cyber-bloggers
Great PR material for BN’s cyber-bloggers

To the contrary, we suggest it is time that Boyfield shook off the MOPC, took a more independent visit and checked his facts.

Because, this expert of one week was soon engaging in public debates and making his ignorance plain – claiming for example that “property rights are pretty well respected in Malaysia” and that the concept of Land Grabs is too “emotive” and “nuanced” with respect to the oil palm debate.

Academic tour or the usual tourist junket courtesy of the Sarawak government ?
Academic tour or the usual tourist junket courtesy of the Sarawak government ?

Mr Boyfield should contact Sarawak’s expert native land rights lawyers, who have seen numerous court victories ignored by the state government and outfits like SALCRA, and think again.

No immigrant workers?

Boyfield has also claimed that during his ‘academic visit’ to Sarawak he observed that everyone he met working on oil palm plantations was a local person and not a migrant worker! 

In Sarawak it strikes me because traditionally its been a much poorer part of Malaysia than the peninsula they’re able to recruit locally”. 

Mr Boyfield should contact any of the grassroots indigenous groups, who could tell him of the major problem with respect to the vast immigrant labour force in Sarawak and the uneconomic wages for local people, even on their own SALCRA “smallholdings”, and then speak again.

Great dividends from SALCRA?

In yet another article, promoting his concept that the Malaysian Palm Oil Industry should be encouraged to expand into Africa for the benefit of the world poor, Boyfield even plays the SALCRA ‘dividend game’, ie spouting big figures without finishing the maths:

“In Sarawak, standards of living have been transformed by commercial agri-business… Farmers associated with SALCRA, a group set up to develop native land rights in Sarawak, have earned $163m individend payments since 1985″ [Keith Boyfield, The Enquirer, Liberia]

Given Boyfield himself acknowledges that there are around 22,000 SALCRA members, this sum in fact calculates over the 30 year period to about $200 a year per family, in return for the sacrifice of their rightful native lands and forests to the government controlled ‘joint ventures’, managed by Alfred Jabu.

World's worst CEO? Ordinary shareholders have gained little from SALCRA - only BN cronies and himself have profited
World’s worst CEO? Ordinary shareholders have gained little from SALCRA – only BN cronies and himself have profited

As everyone in Sarawak knows, the smallholders from SALCRA have received virtually nothing in return for the surrender of their lands and that Jabu’s dividends have been paltry compared to the rich profits made by privately run oil palm ventures.

Neither did these native customary rights land owners receive one ringgit from the huge sums raised out of logging the timber from their lands to make way for the SALCRA palm oil plantations (less than 5% of virgin forest remains in Sarawak – just another fact check for Mr Boyfield).

Only government ministers, like Alfred Jabu and their cronies, have raked in hundreds of millions from the land grab policies of the State of Sarawak.  The Dayak remain as poor as ever.

Attacking NGOs

MPOC was about to hire FBC Media, before SR exposed their illegal activities
MPOC was about to hire FBC Media, before SR exposed their illegal activities and closed them down

But rather than check his facts and balance his arguments, this British consultant has chosen instead to adopt the Malaysian Palm Oil’s obsession with attacking NGOs.

In Malaysia free speech and independent opinion are treated like crimes by BN politicians, who find all criticism highly damaging, since they usually can’t answer it.

But, why should a British onlooker condemn legitimate concerns raised by NGOs in the same way?

This week, when Jabu again went on the attack over native protests against Sarawak’s latest dam building and ‘industrialisation programme’, the DCM as ever blamed “selfish foreign NGOs who are being paid” for “inciting” them.

He revealed his own paid for PR in the process:

“From overseas they get support from negative NGOs, but these people from overseas what do they know about our internal potential? I went over to London last January at the invitation of the Institute of Economic Affairs to be one of the panel speakers whereby my presentation to overseas has been acknowledged worldwide by the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. And I have been invited again to go to Belgium to tell the NGOs in Europe about our need to survive. Our own people, not because of the selfishness of the NGOs who are being paid, I know i’ve got records, by countries they collect money to finance the NGOs to disturb us here and I’m going to fight that, for the sake of Sarawak.”  [recorded speech] 

Sarawak Report will investigate Jabu’s Belgium event.  But, meanwhile why has Mr Boyfield has adopted the same anti-NGO line in his supportive articles for the MPOC?

“GLOBAL food security and the need to save Africa’s poor from starvation have dominated international discussions for decades, and were key themes at the latest G8 summit. Yet the goal has triggered a raft of accusations from campaigning NGOs that business is guilty of “land grabs” across tropical Africa. The Guardian’s George Monbiot, for example, claims that we are about to witness “a new set of agreements that allow foreign companies to grab [Africa’s] land, patent their seeds and monopolise their food markets. This is scaremongering of the worst order and symptomatic of an ill-thought out attack on capitalism’s role as a generator of prosperity.”[Keith Boyfield, The Enquirer]

FBC Media would have been proud of all this from Mr Boyfield – they were the last British champions for the MOPC and they adopted exactly the same theme in their “Develop or Die” series, which was later disowned by the BBC.

But, when Ministers like Alfred Jabu start hurling unsubstantiated accusations about “paid NGOs”, engaged by foreign powers to undermine Malaysia, someone should remind him about the millions of ringgit that are being wasted by the Malaysian Government itself on engaging this sort of blatant PR from consultants like Keith Boyfield.

It is always public money wasted, because people like Boyfield always get rumbled.

[Sarawak Report is still awaiting promise clarifications by the IEA, in response to our critique of its “complex and intertwined” relationship with the MOPC]

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