Picture: Channel News Asia. Farmers take to the street in demonstration at Kuala Lumpur

Indigenous farmers and activists in Malaysia have launched a campaign to combat the European Union’s proposed ban on palm oil in biofuels from 2021. This is an attempt to reduce the demand causing human rights abuses and environmental destruction that comes hand-in-hand with mono-production of palm oil. The European Union looked to introduce this ban as palm oil production in massive quantities causes “socio-environmental disasters without exception.”

Groups of small farmers have united in their approach: a photo campaign accompanied by press release statements, a petition, and a street protest in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. They call for a more nuanced take on the ban, an examination of how palm oil farming appears from an indigenous farmer’s perspective. Yesterday Jan 16, over 1,700 farmers collected in the center of the Kuala Lumpur and marched to the diplomatic offices of European representatives to deliver a petition. The petition had garnered over 103,078 signatures from around the country. The next step is possible retaliation from Malaysia “by banning all EU imports if the ban was to go ahead”.

The organizers of this campaign, Dayak Oil Palm Planters Association of Sarawak (DOPPA), released a statement in which they thank the efforts of NGOs attempting to protect indigenous communities from exploitation, but insist it is time for indigenous peoples themselves to be heard. The group points out that if the heart of the ban on palm oil is to reduce deforestation, and then Malaysia should be an exception to the rule as large swaths of forest are already protected.

DOPPA President Dr Richard Mani uses powerful language, saying the ban is an attack on the well-being of indigenous communities, calling it a ‘Crop Apartheid,’ and comparing palm oil to a lifeline, saying communities “have used palm oil to lift ourselves and our families out of poverty, and build new hope for the future.”

Indigenous movements are often coalition movements, perhaps out of necessity, and use clear methods of nonviolent resistance. In this case, the march in the capital is a classic tactic. The launching of a photo campaign takes advantage of the digital age. This effort may move Malaysian indigenous groups into other indigenous circles globally, those whose livelihoods have been distorted or co-opted – perhaps an angle to locate allies as this campaign continues.

You can find more information here: facesofpalmoil.org