Friday, September 13, 2013

Speaking Truth to Palm Oil: A Close Encounter of the Oily Kind

There aren’t many documents or films about the people of Aceh specifically, as we have seen, but I wanted to find out if there was video information about the forests in Aceh, and how palm oil plantations are affecting it.

And yes there are. Many, in fact.

Some are Kickstarter projects (good news for us!) that were funded or are on their way to being funded, and are now on youtube:

Palm Oil’s Deforestation of Indonesia

And one from World Wildlife Fund called “Sustainable Palm Oil Production” to name just two, although WWF’s figures (45% of palm oil is grown by smallholders) are a bit misleading—these smallholders are not independent but are usually sharecroppers for the large concerns.

“The Sustainability Lie” (right up our alley) is a proposed project that is absolutely fascinating, and scary, since we were very close to being on the wrong side of this particular issue, right smack in the area that is the focus of this film.

The Sustainability Lie: how palm oil is destroying Indonesia Globalfilm productions, 2010


Europe wants green energy and low-priced fat. To meet these demands, international conglomerates build oil palm plantations as far as the eye can see -- and cut down the rainforest in exchange. Sustainability certificates and eco-labels are meant to set the consumers' minds at ease. However, this documentary from Indonesia shows that sustainability does not exist: Wilmar International, the world's biggest palm oil supplier, clear-cuts the Indonesian rainforest without legal permits, contaminates rivers and lakes and uses force to drive people off their homesteads -- all this in the face of sustainability certificates.

Since I am an egalitarian type of gal, however, and even though I’ve lived and worked in Indonesia for over 20 years I am woefully under-informed about palm oil, I wanted to see if there were any palm oil apologists out there making films.

I fear I have bitten off more than I can chew. But I’m going to pursue this a little further because I think it’s important and I cannot for the life of me understand why the international investigative journalism community has not tackled this, the issue of Big (Palm) Oil, and how complex and incredibly creepy it truly is.

First, let me say that there are a few websites out there that talk specifically about the nutritional value and health benefits of palm oil as opposed to other oils. [cf the American Palm Oil Council, I am not going to debate the merits of the product itself. I am only interested in how the product is grown and the damage it is doing to the environment and to people who have the misfortune to be living near the forests which are being eliminated in order to grow it.

[I understand that these two issues eventually intersect: if indeed palm oil is dangerous to our health, yet its marketing is so good that we grow and consume more than we should, then we would stop growing it if we knew its dangers. Let me tell you, that step is so far down the road you’d need the Hubble Telescope to see it.]

At first, I thought that there were several organizations extolling the virtues of palm oil cultivation, and I spent a lot of time tracking down web links and addresses and names of authors. It took a long time (which is why this post is late) but I was finally able to figure out that there is a compendium of, er, one agency that is very, very interested in keeping large-scale palm oil plantations alive and well in Southeast Asia. It is called the Palm Oil Truth Foundation and it first appeared to me as a “comment” in a blog called which condemns non-sustainable palm oil monoculture. Interestingly, 2 out of 3 comments referred back to the Palm Oil Truth Foundation.” (my comments in red)

You need to check your facts, cold and hard ones!

I live in Malaysia, and I am not affilifated to any of these sites below:

there’s one (Apparently, the foundation was set up because there are SO MANY organisations which have been misled; an example of the herd mentality of humans. (this refers to the article in #3, below, so it’s probably the same author)

(2) discussed)


This last was actually an article on a self-help website called “Palm Oil & Deforestation: Truth or Fiction?” by one “Frank Tate” whose bio states that “Palm Oil Truth Foundation (TRUTH Foundation) is an international non-governmental and not-for-profit organisation, without strings to the world of commerce and power.” The article is concerned with palm oil plantations in Malaysia, the lemming-like behavior of NGOs who “buy into” the “myth” that palm oil deforestation is responsible for the dwindling orangutan population, and the sleazy tactics of an agency called the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and its Executive Director, Mark Jacobsen. I could only imagine that Mr Jacobson did something really, really bad to Frank Tate because this whole campaign seemed incredibly personal.

As far as I can tell, and from the extensive on-line chatter about it, the Palm Oil Truth Foundation is the only “organization” that publicly supports large scale palm oil cultivation, disputes “myths” about deforestation, calls environmentalists and conservation groups everything from paranoid to capitalist to in league with the EU to keep palm oil all to itself . . . for a minute I thought Rush Limbaugh had embarked on a new career.

I was thinking I’d dearly love to be able to ask one of ‘em, “Have you ever been to Aceh, or are you just locked in a closet somewhere in Brixton with a laptop and an overbearing mother?”

But I read further and I suspect that they are not a “they,” they are a “he:” the redoubtable “Frank Tate.” And he writes of his “seminars” where he speaks to his “delegates.” But he is not just one “he,” he writes under so many aliases that it took a well-known watchdog conservation agency to help me uncover them all.

“Frank” writes for the Malaysian Palm Oil Consortium, which has the world’s biggest share of palm oil plantations in Kalimantan, Borneo. This makes sense because many of the palm oil concerns Indonesia/Aceh, and certainly the largest ones, are Malaysian. My discovery (I love this stuff!) was confirmed by a comment thread on this same conservation website,, where several staff and members of the public spend lots of time debunking anti-conservationist claims across the globe, and this includes taking Frank Tate and his aliases to task for their bizarre propaganda.

“Dave Scott,” a Frank alias, writes, in response to a comment about Mongabay’s motives: “Mongabay, like Greenpeace, FOE and Wetlands have a common agenda and it's not environmental. Their real raison d'etre is to inflate their own bank accounts. Why don't you own up that you've sold out and are operating strictly as a lobby for either "big oil" or one or more of the competing oil seed industries? . . .”

One of the comments that follow: “Dave Scott? Haha, that must be Frank Tate, Mandy, Sheila or any of the other people that the Sya family in Kuala Lumpur is impersonating while they harass NGO websites and blogs that are critical of palm oil. . . . The Sya's run the Palm Oil "Truth Foundation" and "Deforestation Watch". . . . Sya is clearly connected to Yusof Basiron but recently MPOC seems - at least on the surface - to be disassociating itself from Sya's Truth Foundation, that is it has taken out the link to the Truth site. Maybe a result of the KK conference which has made some MPOC people aware that they have to be less blatant in their claims.

[I have not found out yet who the "Sya family" is. Any help with that would be appreciated.]

I confess that up to about a year ago I didn’t know much about the long and unsettling reach of these big companies . . . until one came knocking at JMD’s door. We received a note from a representative of Bumitama Agri Ltd, ( which has some of the largest palm oil plantations in Central Kalimantan (Borneo), to the north of Aceh; Kalimantan is the subject of the documentary “The Sustainability Lie,” and the area where, as you will recall, MPOC has its largest reserves. We did not know much about Bumitama, only that it grew oil palm, and that we were being asked to “develop integrated agriculture projects” around the plantations there. We thought that this was a wonderful thing, that the company wanted JMD to set up an office in Borneo and assist people who were living on the buffer of both the rainforest and the plantations. I sent them a letter [some portions abbreviated]:

Dear M:

Thanks so much for getting in touch with JMD regarding your CCS [corporate responsibility] department’s proposal to implement some integrated agriculture projects in the areas around Bumitama’s plantations in Central Kalimantan.  I would be delighted to speak further with both you and the plantation manager regarding JMD’s past integrated livestock/agriculture projects and our planned future projects, which involve possible expansion into areas outside of Aceh province.

One of JMD’s areas of expertise is the development of projects for people living on the edges of restricted areas, either privately owned enterprises or publicly protected preserves.  As you know, it’s important for these projects to address residents’ needs as comprehensively as possible in order to establish a mutually beneficial and sustainable partnership between the larger entity (whether public or private) and the economic and social needs of the area’s permanent residents.  In the case of palm oil plantations, integrated agriculture projects on the buffer, combined with pilot projects that reclaim adjacent land no longer usable by the palm interest, are key to maintaining the sustainability and economic growth of both the private interest and the community in which it operates.

JMD’s web site provides a sample of the projects we have undertaken and I’d be delighted to forward you summaries of additional livestock and multi-crop agriculture initiatives at your request.  I look forward to learning more about the type and scope of the project you are envisioning so that JMD may best position itself to help you meet your community outreach/economic augmentation goals.

Something like that. It kind of pains me to re-read it.

At this point, we knew we were being asked to leap into bed with a less than savory partner, but the fact that they had shown such willingness to learn how to make their enterprise sustainable had us all a-twitter. We were so starry-eyed, so naïve . . .

And then came their next communication.

We soon learned that not only did they not want JMD to go to Kalimantan and implement a program, they wanted (free of charge and without our input) a copy of our project outline so that their management staff could run a “model” farm for employees to see what one was like, and somehow by seeing this they would run home to their own small farms and replicate this on their own. There was to be no direct benefit to workers whatsoever; the people with whom we spoke (and had Skype conversations) seemed genuinely puzzled that 95% of their workers (their figure) were not taking advantage of the projects Bumitama had “given” them, namely rubber farms and other non-sustainable crops these residents had traditionally never grown. Further, the reps told us that they were kind of nervous since people seemed to be “a little angry.” At this point we were still trying to figure out how we could be involved so we were polite, and didn’t say “Oh, so you say they’re rejecting your handouts and you don’t know why, even though you’ve ripped up all the forest they used to use for their livelihoods and tried to buy them off with rubber plants, is that what’s bothering you, Bunky?”

It dawned on us that in order to show “corporate responsibility” this entity had to hook up with a local livelihoods agency in some way and then demonstrate to a possible outside monitor that it was adding a “sustainable livelihoods component” to its plantations in order to meet some government or conservation regulation that said you had to offer people alternate livelihoods. And they’d figured outa way to do this without actually improving the lives of any of the employees. Genius!

I believe that there are many other instances in which this sort of shell game does occur, and passes for “paying attention to community needs” thus getting the “palm oil mafia” off the hook in terms of having to care about the workers it is exploiting.

Needless to say, we declined to show them our projects or become involved any further. No Christmas cards for us! We even had thoughts of going up there ourselves and just setting up shop . . . but Aceh has enough of this going on that we should probably stay where we know the territory . . . more or less.

There’s still a whole lot we do not know or understand about how the palm oil giants get to operate and evade all corporate and social responsibility in this part of Sumatra. But I’m learning more every day.

Addendum: if you’d like to read more about the Palm Oil Truth Foundation, never let it be said that I stifle the opposition : However, be prepared to not be able to see its content unless you give them your email. You’ll be treated to a little block of soundbites, blocking out its links and tempting you to read further:

FREE REPORT: The European Commission Uses Green Group Surrogates As Attack Dogs Against Palm Oil!
Civil rights group Libertiamo's "Disarming The Greens" Free Special Report reveals: How the WWF, Greenpeace and Friends Of The Earth work with each other to distort facts about palm oil
Names of Activists working in cohort with the environmental groups for money
Manufactured claims against palm oil by European NGOs to protect the European Union's own edible oil industries!

Even if you go to their Facebook page, ( where they have 2,000 “likes,” egads!) and go to their charmingly titled “Daily Bash,” they will not let you see any of the content that they purport is the “truth” about how this is one big conspiracy by the EU to hog palm oil all to itself. You can, however, see their exposés on a site called newsvine, which I guess isn’t too picky about checking to see if anyone’s taken their psychotropic medication before posting, because these things are strange, even for panting propaganda

And to give equal time to the watchdog:
With more than one million unique visitors per month, is one of the world's most popular environmental science and conservation news sites. The news and rainforests sections of the site are widely cited for information on tropical forests, conservation, and wildlife.

Next: Sustainability Certificates: how do I get one?? Plus palm oil updates: the world has weighed in since August, it seems

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