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Opinion

Saturday, 20 January 2018 | MYT 12:00 AM

Slow journey to change

WE are all interested in sustainability. All human beings in their right frame of mind are. Not just the hard core environmental groups. We all want the best for our future generations. In the current European Union (EU) palm oil ban controversy, those who have come out in support of palm oil have somehow been branded as anti-sustainability. What a joke. This just goes to show that some among the environmental groups have no true understanding of the real meaning of sustainability. All they care about is the environment, forgetting the other two no less important pillars of sustainability. The other two pillars of sustainability, people and prosperity, have been inadvertently left out of their equation. Whereas in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the most prominent feature in the 17 goals concerns the well being of people and the society at large. This means people take precedence over all others.

At a recent talk on SDGs hosted by UCSI University, Tan Sri Dzul Razak who has always been passionate about sustainability, gave an excellent analysis of SDGs. He presented very convincing arguments on the fact that the ultimate objective of SDGs is to reduce the gross inequality among people. He provided clear statistics on the growing disparity between the rich and the poor in the world today. The latest figures showed that in 2017, the number of wealthy individuals who owned the equivalent wealth of half the world population can now easily fit into a Toyota Estima. They fitted into a bus the year before. He went on to ask what is the use of having a pristine tropical forest teeming with biodiversity when people living in its vicinity are poor and hungry. This is exactly the narrative we are seeing in the current palm oil ban by the EU. In their haste to satisfy the environmentalists, they have forgotten the people behind palm oil.

If the EU is truly serious about promoting sustainability in the palm oil industry, banning palm oil imports is not the answer. There is a better way. We must remember that sustainability is a journey. It cannot happen abruptly. It is about changing behaviour. And psychologists have always theorised that punitive measures are not the best way to change the habits of people. Rewarding positive behavioural change works better.

One way to do this is to give premium pricing for sustainable palm oil. This was promised earlier when the RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) made its appearance here, but it never materialised.

If one were to use punishment to move the sustainability agenda, why is it that the biggest polluter in the world is not handed the same treatment. Why is there no similar response when Donald Trump pulled the USA out of the Paris Agreement. Why is there no ban of US products into the EU?

Instead of banning palm oil, the EU must engage the palm oil producers here, especially the small farmers. There must be proper guidance undertaken jointly by both countries. The EU proposal of having one certification scheme is worth exploring. But it must be jointly developed by both governments. We should not leave the handling and ownership of certification in the hands of NGOs.

They can participate in the process to develop the scheme where other stakeholders including buyers and sellers are also invited. But once the scheme is agreed on, it should be jointly managed by both governments. This is because governments are more responsible to the people. In other words the three P’s, people, prosperity and planet, are better taken care of.

We can take a cue from the many experiences of sanctions we have had. None of them solved the issues they were supposed to. Instead, they made things worse. They created more bad feelings between nations. They were unproductive.

The EU ban on palm oil is no different. The impact will prove to be negative for both sides. It is time for the EU to seriously rethink the decision. It would be more productive to diplomatically engage and negotiate a win-win deal to truly sustain the sustainability agenda.

PROFESSOR DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM

Fellow Academy of Sciences Malaysia

UCSI University