Last week heartrending scenes were played out in Perak, such as have been seen all over Malaysia, particularly across the vast former rainforest lands of Sarawak and Sabah.
Indigenous folk, who had lived off one of the remaining forest reserves in that state, were strong-armed by police who dismantled the blockade they had erected across the road built into their lands, in a vain attempt to prevent the loggers from invading to do their work.
After all, the state has declared ownership of these areas and it has handed concessions to well-connected and moneyed enterprises, who want to strip out the valuable natural timber and eventually more than likely turn the area into yet more plantation land.
The Perak Orang Asli may have human rights, as morally agreed to by Malaysia’s signatory to the international conventions that attempt to bring basic fairness and equality to everyone brought under the rule of the present system of national governments. However, in Perak last week those rights were largely being ignored – the state government had fulfilled proper procedures, it claimed and NGOs supporting the demonstrators were ‘sensationalising’ the situation.
Yet there is little evidence the local people were being provided with legal support, consulted, included or informed about the planned destruction of their homeland for the benefit of others nor (if past experience is any guide) are they likely to get more than nominal compensation if that, let alone the prospect of an assisted path to alternative livelihoods (that they presently clearly don’t want).
This is about enriching others and about eventually more than likely adding to Malaysia’s already saturated palm oil production, whose markets are starting to look increasingly shakey (more on that later).
None of this even begins to take into account the concerns surrounding the destruction of yet more of Malaysia’s last remaining havens for its original plant and animal life, once the jewel of the natural world.
Malaysians seem very well educated to consider the imported oil palm tree from Africa as their ‘national pride’. However how many of them realise that they happen to inhabit the most biodiverse and luxuriant location for life on the planet?
The Peninsular was till recently so bursting with wildlife that it remains the tenuous home to one of the few tiger populations of the world, amongst so much else.
To the East, the Borneo Jungle is the world’s oldest rainforest (150 million years) and therefore its most biodiverse and the holder of the secrets of more of the planet’s story of evolution than any other part of the globe.
In terms of future scientific discovery and potential pharmaceutical and medicinal knowledge, such a bio-base is priceless and the tourism potential for the future is unparalleled. And yet the Taib family in Sarawak have cashed it in for the price of pulp, just to make sure that the profit at least goes to them before they lose their chance to grab more.
Which is why ‘ignorant’ and ‘simplistic’ customers from so many of Malaysia’s markets have started getting a bit difficult about buying the product. Watching the treatment of the Orang Asli of Perak and the continuing daily destruction of the hundreds of thousands more hectares that Sarawak has announced it wishes to ‘convert’ from forest to oil palm and acacia/eucalipt these foreign folk are getting upset.
They have started pointing out forcefully that the destruction of tropical forest is amongst the top three drivers of global warming and they are asking the Malaysian government to bring it to a halt, if they are to continue to buy palm oil.
The Malaysian delegations to Europe are of course trying to impress on these Mat Salleh how ignorant they are of the actual situation. It is not the fault of the federal government what the local states decide to do with their land banks, they attempt to explain. This despite the fact those policemen, whom we can see pushing away the protestors are the responsibility of the federal government.
So, the federal advocates for Malaysia’s palm oil are trying to explain to those tricky Europeans (whom they suspect of ulterior motives, like pushing their own rival crops) that the local state actions destroying the jungle, abusing native folk and pouring greenhouse gases into the air by converting peat lands into plantations have nothing to do with the national government of Malaysia. Therefore, Malaysia cannot be held accountable for such shortcomings.
Unfortunately, those Europeans just don’t seem to get it. They know about Malaysia, but they don’t know about the constitution and the division of resposibilities – and actually they don’t care either.
Instead, they say things like, well there are numerous issues to do with indigenous rights, workers rights, trafficked labour and the corrupt practices behind the issuing of concessions to do with these plantations which are all federal matters, so why isn’t Malaysia’s federal government interfering to prevent these glaring abuses, which would put a serious and effective constraint on further deforestation?
Those Europeans carry on. They say that it simply doesn’t work for them as customers that the people who come selling the product and telling them they are nice guys are also explaining that they cannot actually be held responsible for how that product is made by nasty guys they can’t control.
So, the Malaysian government is going to find it difficult, in fact impossible, to win back those squeamish and critical clients they need to impress, until they start to … well act like a government and enforce the law against local authorities who behave like rogue operators and adopt criminal methods against their own people.
Certification means nothing until it is backed by law enforcement, accountability and good practice – top down and not bottom up.