Esther Ouwe­hand’s contri­bution to the debate on Envi­ronment and Sustai­na­bility

30 January 2017

Don’t use your freedom to restrict the freedom of others: a sound liberal principle. You are free to do as you please, but that freedom ends as soon as you start hampering others – which is definitely the case when you leave the earth in a worse state than you found it. Already, our behaviour in the West has had serious consequences for the freedom and circumstances of others. And let us be frank: that is wrong. It is as simple as that.

A central element in this story is deforestation; one of the main causes of biodiversity loss and climate change worldwide. For 200 years now, we have been warned about the dangers of deforestation to human survival. And still we have not put an end to the destruction of primeval forests. On the contrary, in the Dutch environmental policy, deforestation is “greenwashed” – we pretend it to be sustainable. The Party for the Animals will continue to fight this.

Starting with the sustainable purchasing policy legitimising deforestation in Malaysia, we will automatically come to deforestation in favour of biofuel imports. Malaysian hardwood can be procured according to the sustainable purchasing policy. After a longstanding battle, the powerful lobby has triumphed not only over biodiversity and climate, but over the inhabitants of the Malaysian forests. Our former Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment, a member of the Dutch Christian-democratic party CDA, made the suggestion to greenwash Malaysian hardwood, even though it is known to be non-sustainable. This was to be expected, considering the cabinet he was in. However, the fact that our current Minister of Infrastructure and the Environment, a member of the Dutch Labour Party (PVDA) and someone who values sustainability, is finishing this dirty job is inconceivable.

These are the facts: the Malaysian government was refusing to cooperate in a field study requested by the Netherlands. The study, which was eventually executed by the Timber Procurement Assessment Committee (TPAC), had nothing whatsoever to do with establishing the truth. Representatives of indigenous peoples were barely consulted. They either did not feel safe enough to talk, or they were not around and were not visited. The programme was not established by TPAC, but by the Malaysian government. If a student would write their thesis in this manner, they would undoubtedly fail. Are we then supposed to settle for this study to base our entire policy on? Research of environmental organisation Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) shows that the rights of indigenous people are still systematically violated and that their land is used for large-scale illegal deforestation. I quote: “The people in indigenous villages in the Malaysian forests are suffering heavily from the timber harvesting. Their forests, fruit trees and gardens are destroyed and their rivers poisoned, fish and other animals disappear and the number of diseases increases, while access to medication from the rainforests becomes more difficult. Increasingly, people are forced to buy their food instead of grow it, while their revenues from the forests decline. Occasionally, even cemeteries are destroyed.” Very sustainable indeed, our purchasing policy! If we continue down this path, who will take us seriously?

I also ask the minister about the broader context: why are things that are not sustainable still called sustainable? We should all do our very best to end climate change and the loss of biodiversity, together. And we are going to need everyone: the government, the industry and the citizens. When constantly confronted with fake sustainability, I wonder what it will do to the public´s drive to work together towards a sustainable planet. Will the minister be prepared to comment on that broader context? In my experience, calling things sustainable that are demonstrably not, has major negative side effects which we simply cannot allow. The same goes for biofuels and, more specifically, palm oil in Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries where palm-oil plantations are popping up on a large scale, on areas that until recently had been rainforests and bogs. Palm oil is one of the most destructive crops in the world, followed closely by soy. It is not only used as a cheap filler product in more than half the products in the supermarkets, but also as a biofuel in our tanks. This has to stop. The minister intends to more than double the share of biofuels consisting of food crops such as palm oil, which is truly illogical. I am pleased that conservative-liberal party VVD is also critical of this plan. It will not be of any help to the climate. In fact, the loss of biodiversity will only accelerate. People are driven from their land, rivers are poisoned and the major forest fires for the establishment of new plantations have made the air quality in South East Asia – quite literally – suffocating. Consequently, the share of conventional biofuels should not be increased, but be brought down to zero, by 2020 at the latest.

It seems the Lower House will be able to encourage the minister to at least maintain double counting and, consequently, prevent her from increasing the share of palm oil in biofuels. Subsequently, the palm oil industry itself should of course not be used for our food industry: the import of palm oil needs to be stopped in its entirety. Would the minister care to respond to that? If we all stick together in saying that palm oil should not be used as a biofuel – which would make me very happy – we will have to work hard to make sure that it is also not used as a standard filler product in our food. After all, its production is just as harmful.