Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, many scientists had warned that deforestation and other industrial processes that encroach into wildlife habitats and natural ecosystems are raising the risk of exotic diseases jumping to humans. Some believe that in a sense, COVID-19 is a dry run for the next, potentially worse, pandemic. If deforestation continues, the risk of new disease outbreaks increases.

This is why it is urgent for the world to support Malaysia’s managed forestry policies, which allow space for both the wilderness and sustainable palm oil. The rainforests of the Malaysian peninsula are believed to be the oldest and some of the most biologically diverse forests in the world. This rainforest eco-region extends across Peninsular Malaysia to the extreme southern tip of Thailand. It is often forgotten that Malaysian authorities have gone to great lengths to preserve the ecological diversity of the forest system, providing the world with an example of how to balance sustainable industrial growth with planetary boundaries. 

The Malaysian palm oil industry has been developed sustainably, with support from the government in preventing the destruction of forests and wildlife habitats. Data from the Ministry of Water, Land and Natural Resources confirmed that more than half of Malaysia’s land area – 55.3%, or 18.3 million ha – is covered by forests. This exceeds the 50% pledge made by then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Thirty-five percent of the country’s plant species are found nowhere else in the world. Although there has been rapid economic development over the years, the government is committed to preserving the rich biodiversity of the rainforests.

Scientific research has continually shown that phasing out palm oil – which is integral to a wide variety of consumer products – will only worsen environmental problems, because alternative vegetable oils are far less efficient. They use up more land, fertilizer, water and pesticides; switching to such oils would drive greater levels of deforestation, for example. Simultaneously, it must be remembered that palm oil is a major GDP component of developing countries such as Malaysia, and specifically plays a crucial role in lifting hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers out of poverty. A palm oil boycott would not only be environmentally destructive but would devastate poverty alleviation efforts and undermine progress in developing economies.

 

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