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Saturday August 14, 2010

Up close with pro-palm oil lobbyist Alan Oxley

WHO can blame oil palm growers in Malaysia and Indonesia if they are wary of Western non-governmental organisations (NGOs)? After all, the plantation players have endured constant anti-palm oil campaigns spearheaded by environmental NGOs over the years. But lately, one US-based NGO, World Growth, has become an ally by championing the palm oil industry’s role in eradicating poverty in developing countries.

Who is behind World Growth, and why is he doing what he is doing? Founder and chairman Alan Oxley, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently, certainly has plenty to say about the green NGOs movement, which he claims camouflage much of their actual agenda with climate change, carbon emission, deforestation and other environmental issues.

He says their actions are unethical and purely based on the development of oil palm plantations and forest conversion, which the NGOs have labelled as “icons” of destruction of biodiversity and natural habitats.

While Oxley may not yet be a familiar name on the local oil palm scene, the Australian has built a reputation as an adviser on international trade agreements, globalisation, greenhouse effects and many other global environmental issues, as well as on the expansion of agriculture–related businesses in the global markets.

He had started his diplomatic career in Singapore back in 1970s, and then working with the United Nations in New York and Geneva, before serving as the Australian ambassador to the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), the predecessor of the World Trade Organisation, back in the mid-1980s.

These postings have formed a strong foundation for him to set up his private consultancy business, International Trade Strategies (ITS), as well as World Growth in 2005.

“My first brush with the oil palm industry and its battle for better international market positioning was during my ITS consulting experience in forestry to counter the negative press report by Greenpeace on Malaysian timber giant, the Rimbunan Hijau group,” recalls Oxley. “I also dealt with the Australian government on sustainable forestry issues, which included addressing illegal logging in Asia-Pacific region.”

Since many timber companies in Malaysia have ended up owning oil palm plantations also, Oxley found himself becoming more intrigued by palm oil. He is intrigued by the fact that it is the world’s most traded vegetable oil but is heavily criticised and even penalised for being an important income earner for some developing nations.

“It is baffling how these green activists seem to be in favour of the livelihood of animals rather than focusing on eradicating poverty among the poor and needy humans,” he quips.

At the same time, Oxley is very much aware that given World Growth’s reputation as a lobbyist for forest conversion and palm oil, it is fast being sidelined by anti-development and green NGOs.

“I think green activists like the Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and even the WWF must hate us for bringing to light some of the discrepancies in their allegations and over-inflated estimates on climate change from the forest conversion as well as premature decisions on the high rate of emission caused by development of peat land into oil palm plantations,” adds Oxley.

On the other hand, he admits that World Growth is becoming increasingly popular in this part of the world, judging by his frequent visits to Malaysia and Indonesia.

“Indonesia’s GAPKI (the counterpart of the Malaysian Palm Oil Association) has already invited me to present a talk there. So don’t be surprised if you happen to see me again as a permanent fixture in one of your (Malaysian oil palm) events soon,” says Oxley.

To a question whether World Growth is on the payroll of any of the Malaysian palm oil-related associations or agencies, he says: “I have been asked this by many journos worldwide. My answer remains the same – I’m not allowed to say it. It is immaterial which organisations supports World Growth.

“One should focus on our mission and objectives, that is, to ensure the development of any nation should not be pushed aside through anti-free trade and anti-globalisation acts.”

In fact, Oxley argues, no one had really known for sure who – which associations or countries – are sponsoring the Western environmental NGOs until it was unveiled recently in a report by an independent international research group claiming that these NGO were mainly sponsored by member countries of the European Union.

This has led to the perception that boycotts of palm oil and its products by some major consumer and retail groups in the EU were due to trade protectionist issues.

“Should the table be turned against these Western retailers, for example, by Indonesia, which is the world’s biggest palm oil producer and also has a huge population? How would Nestle feel if its Kit Kat products are banned in the highly populated Indonesian market?” Oxley asks.

He laments the fact that many Western retailers fail to recognise the consequences of their actions of denying Indonesian palm oil entry into their markets due to the constant pressure by green NGOs.

His advice to oil-palm industry players worldwide is to fully support the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) initiative. So far, palm oil producers do not have any option but to get RSPO certification, which is paramount in supporting the sustainability of the commodity. Many other certification schemes have been created, for example in forestry, marine products, soybean and soon, on water, he says.

When he is not too busy driving World Growth’s fight, Oxley is very much an avid cook. He sharpens his culinary skills at least three times a week by trying out Asian recipes.

His loves to cook beef rendang. He says he has perfected his version after many years, much to the embarrassment of this writer who still has yet to master the ever-challenging rendang.

“It is all about adding eight tablespoon of chillies, a kilo of beef, coconut milk and the right condiments. This rendang will taste even better should you keep it for the next one or two days!” he says.

Whether he is a maestro in trade negotiations or in the kitchen, Oxley has emerged as an important voice in defending the sustainable development of oil palm in the developing nations. It’s too bad this writer has forgotten to ask him whether he uses palm oil in his cooking. If he does, that will be another bonus point to his name.

BORN: 8 June 1947 Melbourne, Australia

WIFE: Sandra

CHILDREN: Harriet, Anna and Tom

FAVOURITE FOOD: Malaysian, Indonesian and Indian

HOBBY: Cooking

QUALIFICATION: Degree in Business Management Monash University (1970)

CAREER: • United Nations representative to New York and Geneva

• Australian Ambassador to the GATT, the predecessor of the World Trade Organisation (1985 to 1989)

• Founded International Trade Strategies Ltd (1990 - current)

• Chairman World Growth (current)

BOOKS: • Seize the Future: How Australia Can Prosper in the New Century, Allen & Unwin, July 2000.

• The Challenge of Free Trade, St Martin’s Press, 1990.

• New Directions in Australia’s Trade - Trends and Strategies to 2010. (2001).

• What the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures means for Australian Business. (2001).

• Expanding Proceed Food Exports: Priorities and Strategies for Joint Action on Market Access by Government and Industry. (1997).

• Review and Analysis of WTO Agreements for Baker and McKenzie. Kluwer: The Hague Alan Oxley

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