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UK’s Brexit Trade Deal with Malaysia has Potential to Flood Market with Dirty Palm Oil

In a weakened position due to Brexit, the UK has accepted Malaysia’s demands to reduce import tariffs on palm oil from the current 12% to 0%

International Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch. Photo: Ian Davidson/Alamy

UK’s Brexit Trade Deal Has Potential to Flood Market with Dirty Palm Oil

In a weakened position due to Brexit, the UK has accepted Malaysia’s demands to reduce import tariffs on palm oil from the current 12% to 0%

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The UK’s latest trade deal with Asia will see the UK abandon European regulations and previous tariffs on palm oil at the behest of Malaysia – a country notorious for its rife logging, resource extraction, exploitation, corruption and land-grabbing.

Signed today, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) will bring a mere 0.08% to Britain’s economy at the expense of environmental safeguarding against a product linked to mass deforestation. 

The demand for palm oil has decimated forests across south-east Asia.

Used in many foods and household products, producers have logged huge swathes of forest in Indonesia and Malaysia to plant monocultures of oil palm trees – often at the expense of indigenous communities, biodiversity and top soil health. But that hasn’t stopped Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch today announcing that palm oil is a “great product”. 

The EU brought in new regulations against palm oil and other commodities in December, banning the sale of products linked to deforestation. The ban, celebrated by green campaigners, put the onus on importers to show that production of their specific goods has not damaged forests.

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However, the ban infuriated Malaysia and Indonesia, the world’s largest exporters of palm oil, which agreed to collaborate in January to undermine the “discrimination” against palm oil.

A few days later, Malaysia announced it would consider halting all exports of palm oil to Europe. The European Union responded by reminding the nation that the law applies equally to commodities produced anywhere, including in EU member states.

In a weakened position due to Brexit, the UK acceded to Malaysia’s demands that it reduce the import tariffs on palm oil from the current 12% to 0%, effective immediately. These tariffs act like environmental safeguarding of an industry rife with illegal deforestation. 

Alex Wijeratna, senior director at deforestation campaign group Mighty Earth, told the Financial Times that “the removal of tariffs on palm oil products from Malaysia without any environmental safeguards makes it very hard for the UK to call itself a climate leader committed to tackling deforestation and protecting precious habitats of endangered species”.

It is believed that the UK also agreed to water-down its anti-deforestation plans to gain access to the trade deal. This has caused concern among campaigners and journalists who have reported on illegal logging driving the destruction of one of the world’s most important rainforests on the island of Borneo, which has seen more than 80% of its forests logged.

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Speaking to the devastation palm oil has caused to the forests and local communities in Malaysia, Clare Rewcastle Brown, editor of Sarawak Report, told Byline Times: “No one trusts the standards of reporting and the criteria for certification in a country where basic environmental impact assessments are not even carried out in advance of logging.”  

The trade deal doesn’t bode well for Malaysia’s remaining forests.

The UK’s deforestation laws were already light compared to Europe’s, allowing illegal logging to be defined under local laws in producing countries. But with government officials and even the royal families of Malaysia linked to projects of vast environmental destruction, the nation’s own thin laws are often flouted, leaving indigenous communities to put their lives on the line protesting the destruction of their lands

Malaysia’s Government officials have a history of lying to international bodies and their own people about the state of their forests. In 2011, Sarawak state officials’ claim that 70% of the forest was intact was debunked by satellite images from Google Earth.

But, despite the evidence of widespread corruption in deforestation industries, Kemi Badenoch has announced that palm oil is not an illegal product and that “you have to make trade-offs” when doing a deal – claiming that the UK will have “more influence” on sustainability as part of the bloc.

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