‘Palm Oil is Great Product’The New Post-Brexit Trade Deal Scandal
Rachel Donald looks at how the Trade Minister’s justification for a zero-tariff trade deal with Malaysia only accelerates global deforestation
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Last week, the UK joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – a trade deal which will ‘boost’ the UK’s economy by 0.08% while dropping the critical import tariffs that protected our markets from unsustainable palm oil.
Malaysia, the world’s second-largest producer of palm oil – a product linked to vast deforestation – demanded that the UK drop the tariffs from 12% to 0% immediately in order to gain access to the trading group. Weakened by Brexit, the UK acceded.
The palm oil industry is so devastating to rainforests and vulnerable communities that in December the European Union announced a ban on it and other commodities linked to deforestation.
In a move lauded by campaigners, exporters to the EU will now have to prove that their products have been sustainably sourced. Malaysia and Indonesia – the world’s largest producer – were furious, with Malaysia even threatening to halt all palm oil exports to the EU. Now, thanks to a deal originally brokered by Liz Truss, they have a backdoor into the Western market.
As the media responded to news of the deal with scathing criticism of its piteous contribution to Britain and the danger posed to the world’s emaciated rainforests, Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch took to the stage to declare that “palm oil is actually a great product” and that “this is not some illegal product we’re talking about”.
Such a statement reveals the geopolitical, environmental and historical illiteracy of the woman representing Britain at the table.
Palm oil has been linked to vast swathes of illegal deforestation in nations like Malaysia, Indonesia and their colonies (West Papua suffers terribly under the demands of the industry). Malaysia equally has a long and brutal history of corruption in which government officials collude with the logging industry to steal and brutalise indigenous lands, extracting as much wealth as possible.
Much like our own Cabinet, the Malaysian Government lies to cover its tracks. In 2021, it was accused of lying to the United Nations about its carbon footprint, “grossly under-reporting” its greenhouse gas emissions. The report accused Malaysia of claiming figures “from a parallel universe”.
In 2011, the government of the state of Sarawak – home to one of the most important rainforests in the world – claimed that 70% of the forest was untouched. This was debunked by images from Google Earth, and data has since shown that 80% of the state’s rainforest has been logged.
Activists, campaigners, and desperate tribes protesting the logging have been known to suffer from acts of severe cruelty such as being locked in shipping containers onsite. Some have even disappeared. Now, the British Government has condoned that history.
Malaysian officials are delighted with Badenoch. Deputy Prime Minister Fadillah Yusof, who also serves as the country’s Plantation and Commodities Minister, was quick to welcome her comments. “She rightly dispelled the myth of deforestation,” he cheered. He went on to announce that palm oil has suffered from propaganda campaigns, building on his rhetoric last month that the EU’s “unfair narrative” about the product amounted to a trade barrier.
And yet, just a few days before joining the CPTPP, the UK’s Climate Change Committee published a report finding that Britain is “strikingly unprepared” for climate change. It said that, under the Conservatives, the nation “lost a decade” in efforts to adapt for the impacts of global heating.
This didn’t stop Badenoch from stating, uncritically, that “being in the trade bloc, we’re going to have more influence on sustainability”. Despite the fact that sustainability safeguards set by governments with a progressive constitution and some environmental knowledge are to be abandoned in the name of economic growth (which has been shown by scientists to be the fundamental driver of climate change).
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“Moving the tariff from 2% to 0% is not what’s going to cause deforestation,” Badenoch said, ignoring that the former tariffs were as high as 12%. “And, actually, the standards which are set by this Government, by the Department for the Environment, is going to dictate what comes into the country.”
When interviewed, Sky News failed to point out to Badenoch that the UK’s deforestation laws, for example, allow illegal logging to be defined under local laws in producing countries. These laws differ greatly between country, between state, and even between towns, depending on which official is bribed by the Malaysian timber mafia which have dominated the industry for decades. Disastrously, it is understood that the UK also agreed to loosen these lax restrictions in order to gain access to the trading bloc.
Our forests are critical to the fight against the climate crisis. Beyond being carbon sinks, they are home to the world’s most vibrantly biodiverse sites and human cultures. Risking the potential of their destruction to boost personal wealth and national GDP – increasingly synonymous under oligarchic capitalism – is akin to a death sentence to our planetary and political stability.
Brexit has put Britain’s reputation to shame on the world stage to the extent we have become the political marionettes of those who learned the hard way just how bountiful exploitation is. The stagnation of political imagination on both sides will help destroy the landscape of what tomorrow will look like in Britain. The real trade deal here is exporting that same devastation to the world’s most vulnerable ecosystems and communities.
Brexit has battered Britain. Now it will be firing up chainsaws all around the world.