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Fearing tobacco’s fate, palm oil industry fights back

On the morning of February 26, executives from a Washington consultancy introduced a technique paper to a number of the most powerful officers within the Malaysian palm oil industry.

The message: Don’t permit environmental activists and Western governments to tarnish palm oil to the extent that it finally ends up a pariah product, like tobacco.

The $60 billion palm oil trade has been vilified by environmentalists because of the huge areas of tropical rainforest they say have been cleared to grow the commodity that is consumed by billions of people.

Malaysia and Indonesia, which collectively produce about 85% of the world’s palm, had been largely passive in response, snug in counting on the sustainability of demand for an oil used for cooking and in gadgets like soaps and shampoos, snack meals, pizza, bread and biodiesel. Food accounts for almost 70% of worldwide consumption of palm oil.

But final yr, Malaysia launched a worldwide public relations and lobbying offensive to guard the popularity of its key export, notably in Europe. Reuters has pieced together an image of the sweeping effort from inner public relations technique documents as well as interviews with dozens of palm oil industry members.

The European Union passed an act earlier this yr to part out palm oil from renewable gasoline by 2030 resulting from deforestation considerations. While demand for palm oil used in EU biodiesel accounts for a fraction of worldwide provide, palm oil producers in Malaysia and Indonesia fear the regulation might spur calls for regulation in its utilization in meals.

Malaysia has led the PR offensive because the EU began working on the regulation, as it is much more reliant on exports than larger rival Indonesia, and ships about 85% of its complete palm oil production abroad yearly.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has stated the EU regulation was “grossly unfair” and was an try to guard various oils that Europe produced itself.

The publicity marketing campaign aimed toward critics of palm oil has been coordinated by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), a state agency answerable for promoting palm oil and on the lookout for commerce opportunities for the product.

The agency is funded no less than partly by a charge paid by plantation corporations based mostly on palm oil manufacturing. MPOC’s board consists of representatives from plantation corporations, including Sime Darby Plantation Bhd, the world’s largest oil palm planter by land, and IOI Corp.

The representatives of the 2 corporations didn’t respond to requests for remark.

Its marketing campaign is centred round small holder farmers, carried out by platforms that say they symbolize farmers however are created or run by PR companies employed by the MPOC, the technique paperwork dated Aug 6, 2018 and Feb 26, 2019, show.

MPOC has also accepted funding information websites, researchers, op-eds and former politicians to talk up for palm oil and undermine the EU regulation, the paperwork present.

Not one of the groups or people identified in the proposals have been transparent about their funding and have typically claimed to be unbiased voices.

At the very least three PR companies hired by the MPOC are operating these campaigns, copies of their proposals seen by Reuters show. The MPOC accepted all their proposals, based on two sources with direct information of the matter.

Lobbyist for tobacco, oil

The primary company involved within the strategy is the DCI Group, a Washington-based public relations agency that has previously developed campaigns for tobacco and oil multinationals. Its shoppers have included Altria and the previous Burmese army junta, based on U.S. public data and DCI itself.

Asked by Reuters for comment on its strategy, DCI stated it was engaged in the Malaysian marketing campaign but did not give particulars.

“We are proud to work with Malaysia’s palm oil industry in its fight to defend the jobs and livelihoods of small farmers against unfair trade and environmental policies which perpetuate global poverty,” stated Justin Peterson, managing companion at DCI Group, in an e-mail.

The MPOC has not spoken publicly concerning the marketing campaign. It advised Reuters that it uses numerous methods, together with engagement of PR businesses and advisory companies, to pursue its aims, but for aggressive and shopper confidentiality reasons, it might not disclose particulars.

“Industries and governments across the world engage in an array of efforts to defend their national interests. In MPOC’s case, however, we ensure that all such activities are above board and are in accord with local rules and regulations governing such engagements,” the MPOC stated.

The Malaysian ministry answerable for palm oil declined comment.

The opposite two companies operating PR campaigns are: Kuala Lumpur-based Invoke, run by Rafizi Ramli, a former Malaysian lawmaker; and Unitas Communications, a PR agency with workplaces in London and Jeddah.

Invoke runs its campaign via the ‘Planters United’ platform, which describes itself as a non-governmental organisation made up of smallholder farmers, in accordance with a Feb. 26 copy of its proposal seen by Reuters.

Unitas, Rafizi and Invoke didn’t respond to calls and emails for remark.

EU lawmakers declined to talk about lobbying by the palm oil industry however environmental group Greenpeace stated the lobbying by Malaysia had resulted within the EU regulation referring to biodiesel being diluted.

Officers at the European parliament were not out there for comment and Reuters was unable to independently affirm this.

Reasoning gained’t work

In line with documents reviewed by Reuters, DCI’s campaign pitch to the MPOC this yr sought a price range of over $1 million. The MPOC permitted the finances after negotiating the worth barely down, the 2 sources stated.

MPOC additionally accepted a 2019 price range of round $120,000 for Invoke and $200,000 for Unitas, the sources stated.

MPOC and the three PR corporations did not touch upon the quantities and whether it was permitted.

Reuters has seen a replica of an eight-page public affairs proposal distributed by DCI on the February 26 meeting with at the least a dozen officers from MPOC, the Malaysian ministry of main industries and palm oil corporations. The proposal stated: “The eco-colonialists have turned to a scorched earth approach of junk science and faulty logic: they label palm oil as the new tobacco.”

“Attempting to reason with these opponents, through dialogue or scientific research will not stop their attacks and will not advance Malaysia’s position.”

The doc didn’t identify the “eco-colonialists” however in previous paragraphs it refers to the EU.

Farmers ought to be the “primary messengers” globally of the marketing campaign towards critics of palm oil, DCI stated in a previous proposal to MPOC, in August, 2018.

“Small farmers are Malaysia’s most powerful weapon against Europe and the NGOs,” it stated.

DCI has been operating or coordinating grassroots campaigns by way of entrance teams similar to Farmers Unite, DCI’s campaign proposals from August 2018 and February 2019 present.

Farmers Unite says on its web site it’s a international coalition of oil palm small farmer associations and different supporting organisations, and that it speaks for greater than 7 million oil palm smallholders the world over.

It didn’t reply to requests for remark.

Farmers Unite took out full page ads last December within the UK towards British retailer Iceland when the corporate stated it will cease promoting in-house merchandise containing palm oil. Iceland says it has ended using palm oil in such merchandise by the top of 2018.

Iceland declined to comment on the Farmers Unite campaign.

In August 2018, DCI pitched to the MPOC the creation of an African platform with the assistance of Nigerian assume tank, the Initiative for Public Coverage Evaluation (IPPA), saying “recruiting support from African allies is necessary to put maximum pressure on your opponents.”

“These are weak spots for EU NGOs and politicians – they fear accusations of neo-colonialism and discrimination,” the proposal stated.

In its subsequent presentation in February, 2019, DCI asked for a finances of $10,000 per thirty days for Farmers Unite, which it described as a challenge of IPPA. IPPA has beforehand opposed harder legislation towards tobacco products in Nigeria, citing the unfavorable influence on farmers and investment.

IPPA stated “where we raise our money and get support is immaterial.”

In its August 2018 proposal, DCI also set out a technique to use a gaggle referred to as Faces of Palm Oil, which says it represents 650, 000 farmers in Malaysia, within the marketing campaign.

“Faces of Palm Oil will once again serve as the campaign hub; and small farmers should be the primary messengers in Malaysia, European and international media,” DCI stated within the proposal.

Faces of Palm Oil has been probably the most vocal farmers’ group on social media, criticising NGOs, EU lawmakers and journalists, based mostly on its social media feed and environmental teams tracking palm oil. It says on its website it’s a joint undertaking of three main farmers’ groups and different bodies.

Faces of Palm Oil did not respond to a request for remark.

MPOC didn’t touch upon the funding of the farmers’ groups.

Paid op-eds

DCI has also sought to affect opinion via paying for news articles, columns and research, based on the documents seen by Reuters.

This yr, for example, DCI requested the MPOC to offer a price range of $11,000 a month to a publication referred to as Palm Oil Monitor, based on the February proposal. The publication has been publishing news tales and behind-the-scenes info on the negotiations of the EU regulation, scooping mainstream media on the contents of Mahathir’s strongly-worded letters to European leaders. The plan was accepted, the two sources stated.

Khalil Hegarty, one of many two authors of Palm Oil Monitor, informed Reuters in an emailed statement that the publication “benefited from support from various sources (including industry sources).” He declined to offer specifics.

Hegarty stated “we don’t lobby, and any insinuation that Palm Oil Monitor is a part of some grand lobbying effort would be inaccurate.”