Palm Oil: Human rights triumph over manufactured consent?
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Palm Oil: Human rights triumph over manufactured consent?

GLOBAL human rights movement in protection of tribal minorities may have dealt a huge blow to gigantum economic forces in Malaysia.

The latest to come down under the pressure of human rights advocates is the palm oil industry.

According to an update on the website of Survial International yesterday, it was reported that the advertising regulator in the United Kingdom had banned an advertisement placed by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC).

The magazine advertisement claimed that Malaysian palm oil was ‘sustainable’ and contributed to ‘the alleviation of poverty, especially amongst rural populations’.

However, The UK’s Advertising Standards Agency banned the advertisement, ruling that those claims, and many others, were misleading and could not be substantiated.

Incidentally, the tribal minority highlighted as the victims of the palm oil industry profiteering is the Penan community in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, or a part of the forlorn Borneo remembered in its colonial history.

Over decades, the Penans had been fighting a losing battle to stop the massive chopping down of forests, their natural habitat, to benefit the timber-logging companies and to make way for oil palm plantations.

Advocates of the Penans’ human rights have been calling on the Malaysia government to halt deforestation activities and logging on the Penans’ land without their consent. But to no avail.

Meanwhile, palm oil has grown to make Malaysia the most dominant vegetable oil producer in the global market. On the flip of the coin, it has also become target of anti-tropical oil lobbyists, notably in the developed economies in the US and Euro Community, where inherent players in the edible oil market faced apparent threats.

Manufacturing of consent

In the face of such competitive environment, the palm oil industry and the Malaysian government employed a phenomenon well-described by Noam Chomsky in the 1980s: The manafacturing of consent using the media.

Numerous reactive measures were taken to counter the lobbyists’ manoeuvres, which included the hiring of public relations specialists in the US to address the issues of negative perception and allegations over the nutritional characteristics of palm oil produced in Malaysia.

Subsequently, MPOC was set up as a state-sponsored entity to take the lobbyists head on in their territories. Its regional offices are now present in California in the US, Brussels in the EU, Shanghai in People’s Republic of China, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey and Egypt.

Homafwever, the ban of the advertisement in the UK market may have taken a new nuance, in that manufactured consent to favour palm oil is now linked to violation of human rughts of a tribal minority.

In a statement issued yesterday, Survival International director Stephen Corry said: “Claims that Malaysian palm oil is green and people-friendly will not wash, especially with the Penan. The industry’s expansion onto their land is a disaster.”

Oil palm plantations and logging are destroying the forests the Penan hunt and gather in, and polluting the rivers they fish in,” Survival International said. “Without their forests they have difficulty finding enough food.”

In what looks like a public relations exercise by the human rights advocate, the statement carried a reaction on behalf of the Penans:

“Our people welcome the ban on the magazine advert by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council. How come the advert claimed that palm oil helps alleviate poverty, when from the very beginning oil palm plantations have destroyed our source of livelihood and made us much poorer? A lot of people are hungry every day because our forest has been destroyed.”

Of late, the Penans had faced serious threats besides destruction of their natural habitat. There were cases of Penan young girls sexually assaulted without any justice given.

As a legislator, I have submitted a motion in the current sitting of the House of Representative in the Malaysian Parliament. The motion was cued under Motion No. 64 [Ref: PR-1223-U34075] which says:

“THAT the House shall acknowledge that reports relating to young girls of the Penan tribe in the territory of Baram, Sarawak, who are exposed to the threats of rape, violation of modesty and sexual torture perpetrated by the operators of timber logging warrant immediate attention, and efforts should be swiftly taken to summon the authorities to commit to providing them protection, and to mete appropriate punishment to the perpetrators who terrorised the Penans.”

Thus far, the Home Affairs Minister,who is entrusted to uphold public safety, had taken no action on the issue.