In April 2018, the Icelandic grocery chain released a video with its managing director, Richard Walker, on a research trip in Borneo.
“We went expecting to see some palm oil plantations and some forest clearing,” Walker says in a voice-over, as we watch him descend the steps of a regional plane, sunglasses on his head and climb over fallen logs in a dense rainforest.
“But nothing prepared me for the industrial scale of what we saw. We witnessed an environmental disaster zone. ”The video concluded with the announcement that Iceland would phase out palm oil from its domestic products by the end of 2018.
Not long after, a sarcastic video “prepared by small Malaysian farmers” began to appear on the feeds of UK Twitter users.
Featuring horror movie music and captions in random caps, the ad mocks Walker, dismisses him as “Richard from the trust fund” and contrasts him with Malaysian oil palm farmers.
“Billionaire Richard took a plane to Borneo,” he says of the video footage from Iceland, “to lecture Malaysians on the environment.”
It was the latest in a series of talking point campaigns about “eco-colonialists” and trade wars disguised as health and / or environmental concerns that the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) had been promoting for decades.
“Richard is taking from poor farmers in Africa and Asia,” the Twitter ad concluded, “to give to wealthy Western agricultural companies that sell rapeseed and sunflower.”
One (another) uncomfortable truth
In fact, in its awkwardness (as in its random capitalization), the Twitter video bore a striking resemblance to another short ad that had appeared on YouTube a few years earlier. “Al Gore’s Penguin Army,” which originally aired in 2006, around the time An Inconvenient Truth was released, was a parody of the former vice president and his environmental concerns.
In the two-minute video, Gore is seen boring a group of penguins with a lecture and blaming climate change for every affliction humanity faces. The ad’s rough graphics and youthful sensibilities suggested an amateur production, and the person responsible for posting it described himself as a 29-year-old from Beverly Hills, California.
But a Wall Street Journal reporter determined that its creator had used a computer registered with a Washington, DC-based lobbying firm called the DCI Group. The firm, which had close ties to the George W. Bush administration, specializes in so-called Astroturf campaigns (corporate efforts disguised to look like grassroots movements) and among its clients at the time Gore’s video circulated, compatible with fossil fuels. they were ExxonMobil and General Motors.
Previously, DCI had lobbied on behalf of Altria (the parent company of Philip Morris USA) and the former Burmese military junta.
Shortly after Richard Walker’s announcement began to appear on Twitter, the media reported that it was also the work of the DCI Group. The video had been promoted by an organization called Human Faces of Palm Oil, which, according to its website, “seeks to advocate on behalf of Malaysia’s small farmers” and is a joint project of MPOC and something called NASH, the National Association of Small Headlines, among others.
In an August 2018 proposal to MPOC and other industry groups, DCI recommended that independent farmers be the global “leading messengers” of the campaign against industry critics, with Human Faces of Palm Oil leading the campaign. .
The proposal made clear that DCI had been coordinating other grassroots campaigns through industry front groups, including something called Palm Oil Farmers Unite. The Farmers Unite Facebook page features a National Geographic-style array of photographs of farmers around the world and says the organization “speaks on behalf of 7 million small oil palm producers” fighting against “dangerous campaigns and policies that threaten our livelihoods. “
In the 2018 proposal, DCI also proposed the creation of an African platform with the help of a Nigerian group of experts, the Initiative for Public Policy Analysis.
“Enlisting the support of African allies is necessary to exert maximum pressure on your opponents,” came the pitch from Beltway strategists. European NGOs and politicians, he added, “fear accusations of neo-colonialism and discrimination.”
That year, Farmers Unite and NASH also ran several advertisements in Politico Europe, a medium widely read by lawmakers in Brussels (where DNI also has an office), denouncing the EU’s palm oil policy as “crop apartheid.”
At a meeting in Kuala Lumpur with MPOC and other industry leaders in early 2019, DCI submitted an additional proposal in which it duplicated its artificial turf strategy.
“Attempting to reason with these opponents, through dialogue or scientific investigation, will not stop their attacks and will not advance Malaysia’s position,” he said. “Small farmers are Malaysia’s most powerful weapon against Europe and NGOs.”
Unlike media campaigns, smallholder farmers’ organizations in Indonesia and Malaysia have long complained that their governments support large palm oil corporations and leave their members struggling on the threshold of the poverty. The average palm oil worker in Indonesia is likely to earn around $ 6 a day. Malaysia’s daily wage for palm oil workers is closer to $ 9.
Tobacco and alcohol
The men who run the industry, on the other hand, are among the richest in all of Southeast Asia. Wilmar’s top investor Robert Kuok, whose net worth is $ 12.3 billion, is the richest man in Malaysia. The CEO of the company, Kuok Khoon Hong (Robert’s nephew), is worth $ 3.6 billion.
Salim Group’s Anthoni Salim has an estimated fortune of $ 5.9 billion, and when Sinar Mas founder Eka Tjipta Widjaja died in 2019, he was worth $ 9.1 billion.
In January 2019, the World Health Organization published an article calling for greater scrutiny of the health and planetary impacts of palm oil and comparing industry tactics: “establishing lobbying structures in political centers and economic, fighting regulations, trying to undermine reliable sources of information and using arguments to alleviate poverty ”, which had previously been deployed by tobacco and alcohol lobbies.
Writing in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Sowmya Kadandale of the United Nations Children’s Fund; Robert Marten, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; and Richard Smith of the University of Exeter School of Medicine and Health warned of a “cocktail effect”, in which palm oil could be detrimental to health when combined with other ingredients used in highly processed foods.
The authors added that the marketing of “ultra-processed” products by the food industry to children also recalled how the tobacco and alcohol industries had targeted young people.
The report called the palm oil industry “an overlooked actor in discussions of noncommunicable diseases” and suggested that policymakers consider ways to reduce demand for unhealthy ultra-processed foods and oils. . He also recommended avoiding “the influence of lobbying by food industries whose practices have an adverse impact on human and planetary health.”
Having issued only six weeks before the DNI Group submitted its follow-up proposal to the MPOC in Kuala Lumpur, the WHO report may have provided the lobby with some of its talking points.
“Eco-colonialists have resorted to a scorched earth approach of junk science and faulty logic,” DCI wrote in his speech. “They label palm oil the new tobacco.” The group’s proposal involved a budget of more than $ 1 million.
Taken from Planet Palm: How palm oil ended up in everything and put the world in danger, by Jocelyn C. Zuckerman
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism