The Loneliest Man in Cancun? Maybe the Deforestation Advocate

William Booth, Washington Post Point Carbon Blog

CANCUN, Mexico — The loneliest man at the Cancun climate conference? It just might be Alan Oxley of the group World Growth. Why? Oxley and his people are advocating deforestation.

Or as they like to call it, “land conversion.”

What is really wrong, Oxley asked, with chopping down virgin forest and tropical jungle and turning the habitat into palm oil plantations.

Palm oil is “a cheap sustainable food source,” he said.

And “poor people need the income,” he added.

And the forests? They’re good, but expendable. Their loss only supplies 6 to 8 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to figures he cited.

This is the kind of stuff that gives enviros a heart attack.

World Growth issued two reports. The first suggests that forest conservation mechanisms pushed by U.N. climate negotiators would condemn poor people who live in the forests to “serfdom.” The second says it would be a good idea to turn these forests into palm farms.

“It is the most sustainable vegetable oil,” said Oxley at a Tuesday press conference attended by about six people (including two members of his Arlington, Va. staff). “Its environmental impact is small and it is without question the most successful crop to alleviate poverty.”

Not so fast. According to Greenpeace: “the phenomenal growth of the palm oil industry spells disaster for local communities, biodiversity, and climate change as palm plantations encroach further and further into forested areas. This is happening across South East Asia, but the problem is particularly acute in Indonesia, which has been named in the 2008 Guinness Book of Records as the country with fastest rate of deforestation.”

The Australian Orangutan Project called palm oil “the greatest threat” to the highly intelligent arboreal primates because conversion of forest to palm in Borneo and Sumatra are robbing vital habitat.

Oxley called the campaigns against palm oil “sensationalist and salacious.”

When asked who supports his work, Oxley declined to answer. It sounds like it’s the palm oil council? “We don’t disclose our funders,” he said.

Perhaps the governments of Indonesia or Malaysia, which grow 85 percent of the palm oil, which is used not only for cooking, but in cosmetics and biofuel? Or palm oil players such as Unilever, Nestlé or Procter & Gamble?

“It’s beside the point,” Oxley said.

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