Response to a review by theoilpalm.org – Lopsided study on Rajang Delta

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Dear Sir,

I am writing in response to an article titled “Lopsided Study on Rajang Delta” posted on your website (http://theoilpalm.org/lopsided-study-on-rajang-delta/). On behalf of Wetlands International, I would like to thank the writer for his interest in our study carried out in the Rajang Delta of Sarawak. Whilst the writer’s response, comments and perception of the report are appreciated, regrettably his review included some errors, omissions and incorrect allusions, and I would be failing in my duty if I do not set the record right.

The writer started his review by labelling Wetlands International as a European NGO. It is a little known fact, but one of the co-founders of Wetlands International began its existence here, in Malaysia. It began as Interwader in 1983, which was set up to study the distribution and concentration of migratory shorebirds that fly along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Interwader was later restructured and renamed as Asian Wetlands Bureau (AWB) with its operating office in the University of Malaya (UM). In October 1995, AWB co-organised the “International Conference on Wetlands and Development” in Kuala Lumpur, along with two other like-minded organisations – International Waterfowl & Wetlands Research Bureau (IWRB) and Wetlands for the Americas (WA). The conference was officiated by our then Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad. At the conference, the three organisations agreed to merge into a new global organisation which adopted the name Wetlands International. With this merger, a new entity Wetlands International – Asia Pacific, later renamed as Wetlands International Malaysia was registered with SSM (No.: 394031D).

As the Malaysian Chapter of a global organisation, MyWI operates within the policies and framework of Wetlands International, but retains her independence in deciding on the detailed scope of the work that we do. We are a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the conservation and wise use of wetlands. Our leading activities include providing technical input to local authorities on the management, restoration and sustainable use of peatlands and mangrove areas, including through promotion of ecotourism development and environmental education on wetlands.

Contrary to the insinuations of the writer, Wetlands International has no hidden agenda against oil palm cultivation. Wetlands International is an active member of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and we are committed to promote a sustainable palm oil industry. As a local environmental NGO, MyWI has consistently acknowledged the importance of the industry to the economy of Malaysia and its contribution to the income and well-being of the stakeholders. We are well aware that in 2012 alone, Sarawak earned more than RM 425.2 million from crude palm oil sales tax (10.8% of the state’s total revenue) and generated approximately RM 8.4 billion in export value for the country at the same time. However, whilst we do not deny the economic importance of palm oil for the state and country, nevertheless we must never forget that if the oil palm industry is not well planned and managed, its economic value would be short lived and the state could lose one of its most valuable resources in the longer term.

We embarked on the study on the Rajang Delta simply because the delta is predominantly peat. Peatland is a type of wetland and peat soils typically comprise 10% accumulated organic materials and 90% water. When drained, the peat oxidises and all peat above the drainage level will eventually be lost, resulting in land subsidence. In layman term, the peat soil literally ‘evaporates’ into thin air. From the study done, it was projected that approximately 69% of Rajang Delta will be flooded by the year 2059 due to the land subsidence, and drainage of the peatland for agriculture use is the major underlying cause. In other words, 69% of the land at Rajang Delta will gradually become unproductive resulting in local industries and communities losing large parts of their productive land and homes due to severe floods.

Our concerns on the long-term impact of draining peatland first surfaced during the disastrous floods in Johor in late 2006 and early 2007. I was at that time the Director General of the Department of Irrigation and Drainage, responsible for the national flood mitigation program, and I witnessed at first-hand how huge tracts of oil palm planted on drained peatland were badly hit by the floods and how they remained inundated for weeks. We had to eventually pump out the flood waters as land subsidence had rendered gravity drainage near impossible. In the light of climate change, such extreme hydrological events will likely occur more frequently in the future.

It is true that the Sustainable Peatland for People and Climate project (SPPC) was funded by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) under its Climate and Forest Initiative Support Scheme. As a local environmental NGO, MyWI would have preferred to fund our work from local sources, but as we are all too aware, there are not many opportunities to secure local funding for environmental studies in Malaysia. Nevertheless, the scope of the study was decided by MyWI and we deliberately focused the study solely on the issue of land subsidence and flooding, and made a conscious choice not to cloud it with other issues such as carbon emission.

To carry out the study, Wetlands International commissioned Deltares, a renowned international institute with expertise in assessing flood risks to carry out an independent scientific study that solely focused on the issue of land subsidence and flooding; and the Institute of Biodiversity and Environmental Conservation (IBEC), University Malaysia Sarawak, a local research agency with expertise in environmental conservation studies, to carry out the ground truthing at oil palm plantations in the Rajang Delta. The report quoted by the writer (Flooding projections from elevation and subsidence models for oil palm plantations in the Rajang Delta peatlands, Sarawak, Malaysia), was in fact, a report produced by Deltares for us under the study. IBEC’s report to us (Rapid Field Investigation of Flooding in Rajang Delta, Sarawak) is available at https://jumpshare.com/b/NhIxUYAoPYRTQQPoM1Zk.

On completion of the studies by Deltares and IBEC, MyWI organised a Scientific Workshop in Kuala Lumpur on 8th June 2015, to obtain feedback from the Malaysian scientific community on the scientific authenticity of the study. The scientific panel (participated by local scientists and researchers from local agencies) concurred with the study that any action to drain peatland will result in a continuing subsidence of the land, but differed on the magnitude of the subsidence. Studies by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) gave an annual subsidence rate of 2.5 cm/yr as against the 3.5 cm/yr applied in the Deltares study.

MyWI together with IBEC then organised a Stakeholder’s Workshop, with the aim of providing a broader understanding of the impacts of drainage-based agriculture development on peatlands to stakeholders from government ministries and agencies, the oil palm plantations, civil society and local communities. The Stakeholder’s Workshop was well attended with the participation of many of the key players in the oil palm industry, viz. the Natural Resources and Environmental Board, Sarawak Forestry Department, Tropical Peat Research Laboratory Unit, Sarawak Mineral and Geoscience Department, Malaysian Palm Oil Board, Sarawak Oil Palm Plantation Owners Association, Sarawak Land Custody and Development Department, Department of Agriculture Sarawak, National Hydraulic Research Institute of Malaysia, World Wide Fund for Nature, Global Environmental Centre, Malaysian Nature Society, Institute for Development of Alternative Living and Wildlife Conservation Society Malaysia. The major outcome of the Workshop was a resolution from the stakeholders that the findings of the study should be brought to the attention of the State Authority.

We have been very transparent in carrying out the study. We have no hidden agenda against oil palm cultivation nor have we advocated that the local farmers and communities should somehow return to subsistence lifestyles and live off plants that occur naturally in peat swamp forest. What we do advocate however, is that peat swamp forests should not be drained in view of the land subsidence that will manifest in the long term, thereby subjecting the local communities to an increased risk of future incessant flooding.

Ingeniously, the writer ended his review by claiming that the message from the Wetlands International study is “don’t let the poor develop their peatlands; let them eat trees”. This could not be further from the truth. The stark reality, unpalatable as it may be to some, is that if we develop our peatlands for crops that require drainage, there will be a continuing subsidence of the land leading to a situation in the future where huge investments would be needed to protect the land from floods.

While peatland developments that have happened in the Netherlands, the Sacrameno-San Joaquin Delta and Florida Everglades have provided significant returns to the regional economies, these developments have also come at a cost. Half of the Netherlands is now lying below sea level as a result of subsidence, and consequently an expensive system of dikes and pump-operated drainage had to be developed and will need to be maintained for eternity to keep the land from flooding. This is certainly not a development model that we should subject our country, our people and our land to endure in perpetuity.

Whether we should continue to develop our peatlands for drainage-based agriculture is a matter for the State Authority to decide. What is clear however, is that our present business model does not factor in the future cost for flood mitigation and disaster risk reduction. When these costs make it uneconomical for the plantations to continue their operations, it will be the local community and the poor who will have to live with the consequences.

I would like to once again emphasise that, we are not against development, nor are we against oil palm. We believe, however, that in view of current scientific knowledge we should adopt a cautious approach against developing peatland for any crop that requires drainage. We believe it is imperative that thorough independent scientific studies need to be implemented to assess the feasibility of potential remedial measures to enable our government to base land-use plans in these sensitive areas on appropriate science-based information.

We advocate for the sustainable management of peatlands in Malaysia. This will require major changes in land use and land use planning and Wetlands International is advocating a moratorium on further conversion of peat swamp forests to agriculture and other uses that require drainage until a more sustainable protocol is developed. For currently drained peatland areas, in view of the inevitable process of peatland subsidence, related flooding and loss of productivity of such land, we suggest that the oil palm sector should consider the need for developing alternative plans and remedial measures, and to start research on alternative crops that are suitable for cultivation on undrained  peatlands.

Wetlands International would like to invite the writer and your esteemed organisation to join us and work together to find the most appropriate and effective solutions to deal with the subsidence and flooding issues. We welcome all concerned stakeholders for further collaboration and would be happy to assist in any way possible.

Thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Dato’ Paduka Keizrul Abdullah
Chairperson,
Wetlands International Malaysia

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