Beware of what you wish for because they may come true. That’s the message that Denys Collin Munang, the Director of Sustainability at PT Eagle High Plantations, has for NGOs pushing for more controls on the palm oil industry.

Denys Collin Munang, Director of Sustainability at PT Eagle High Plantations.

“If you push the industry to a level where it does not want to invest more, you’re going to have to deal with the fact that palm oil production will not be able to meet future demand,” he said, adding that this would then mean that other oil crops such as soy and corn would be expected to step up to fill this gap.

The problem with this, he said, is that none of these crops are as productive as palm oil. Between Soy, Rapeseed and Palm Oil, Palm Oil produces more oil than per hectare several times over (more than 5 times), uses much less fertilizer and very little pesticides (only 7% of what they use in Soy).

The result is even more severe deforestation and impact to the environment than with palm oil. “In South America, that is now the main producing region for soybean, the rate of deforestation is more than 2 million hectares a year. While approximately 72% of deforestation in South America were being driven by growing Pasture land for livestock from 1990 to 2005… edible oil or meal crops for livestock in those pasture land has been driving deforestation lately” he said.

Meanwhile for new palm oil plantings globally, in contrast, was just a bit below a million hectares, he said.

Palm oil should definitely move toward sustainability, said Munang, but the crop should not be unfairly targeted. Palm oil should not be singled out while 16 other edible oils and fats are left “free to rip the environment,” Munang said.

“I don’t think there is any other vegetable oil crop that has attracted this much attention,” he said.

Munang also pointed out that one thing many people do not realize is that palm oil has had sustainability certification longer than any other vegetable oil crops and currently leads the other edible oils on the amount of hectarage (2.5 million hectares) and tons (12 million) certified. Compare this with Round Table Responsible Soy (RTRS) which has a little bit more than 750,000 hectares and 2.3 million tons certified.

However, Munang conceded that this was not to say that NGOs did not have valid concerns about the palm oil sector. Deforestation, the treatment of workers and others issues are legitimate concerns, but they must be tempered with a proper perspective of the industry.

Palm oil was and still is an important engine in developing the economy and people’s welfare in producing countries and played an equally important role in poverty alleviation.

One argument that many NGOs advance to argue against the development of the palm oil industry, he said, was the assumption that local residents living in the peripheries of rural development did not want change in their life. That they had no need for the positive changes and modernization that palm oil cultivation can bring for them and their societies.

This is simply not true, said Munang, recalling his childhood and formative years in Lahad Datu in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

He said his father was a smallholder who started with planting cocoa in the 1970s but switched to palm oil in the 1990s because it was a much easier crop to grow.

Munang and his family.

Theirs was a large family, with Denys growing up with nine brothers and sisters. “Most of us were fed, clothed and put through schools, then college and universities from the proceeds from growing palm oil,” he said, adding that NGOs would do well-giving voice to the aspirations of smallholders, who occupy more than 45 percent of the land under palm oil cultivation in Indonesia, rather than forcing their preconceived views and notions on the smallholders.

While NGOs needed to be fairer to palm oil, the industry itself must get better at solving the many issues it faced.

One of this is the low productivity of the industry. A possible reason for this is that there has been the substandard quality of the palm oil seeds.

He said he was struck during a recent palm oil conference when every speaker said that there was no real increase in palm oil yield in the past decade, but did not address the fact that many smallholders and medium-sized plantations used a poor selection of the palm oil variety to plant.

“I  think a lot of the problems, why yields after 15 years of planting have not increased is because, the seed selection was suboptimal, planting was not being properly conducted,” Munang added.

He also believed that because of the rapid expansion in palm oil plantations almost two decades ago, an increasing number of plantations will need to have their crop replaced in the coming years. Oil palms usually see their productivity decline after 20 or 25 years and thus have to be replaced.

Indonesia currently has to replant between 150,000 and 200,000 hectares a year but the area to be replanted will soar drastically soon because of the genesis of the drastic expansions in plantation some 16 to 19 years ago.

“Replanting will hit a wall in 2022, because in 2022, if you calculate replanting based on age, you will have to plant three times more than what you have been regularly planting. You will have to plant around 670,000 hectares,” Munang said, adding that this amount will stay for the following three years at least.

Expansion could also not offset the low productivity.  New planting is coming down rapidly from 400,000 hectares a year to something like 150,000 hectares. “And there is now more pressure for people to select areas to plant,” he said.

Another source of frustration in palm oil for Munang is the time needed for research to get the ultimate palm oil crop. Compared to short cycle crops that one harvests and replants in 7-10 months, Palm Oil trees are very productive up to 20 years and any research has to ensure that new clones or hybrids being developed must be able to have a survival rate of at least the same length of time.

“That new crop variety is not going to come in and the existing crop is not showing the yields that were originally promised,” he said. This, he said, will leave people with no other choice than to go back to good agricultural practices in palm oil and also to focus on existing productive area.

Profile: Denys Collin Munang

Denys Munang is the second generation in his family that is making a living from palm oil.

His family started as a cocoa smallholder in Lahad Datu, Sabah but found the crop too demanding of attention. They switched to palm oil in the 1990s and from the proceeds of selling his crops managed to send Munang and most of his other six brothers and three sisters through school, college and university.

Denys C. Munang

Munang’s career, however, did not start with palm oil. His professional career started by joining a Swiss company, Omya AG, that deals with industrial minerals,  specifically calcium carbonate, also known as limestone, marble or dolomite, in 1995.

He stayed with the company for 14 years, serving in several positions including as head of its Malaysian operation, then later for the Indian subcontinent, and helping to set up an Asia Pacific office for the company in Kuala Lumpur. Longing to work in his own country, Malaysia, the then left to join the Felda Global Ventures,  the world’s largest Crude Palm Oil (CPO) producer and the second largest Malaysian palm oil refiner.

In May this year, Felda (the Federal Land Development Agency), the majority shareholders in Felda Global Venture, offered him to be their representative on the Executive Board of Eagle High Plantations in Indonesia. Felda owns a 37 percent stake in  Eagle High Plantations, an Indonesia-based company engaged in oil palm plantations and palm oil manufacturing.

That brought him to Jakarta with his family (except his son Ethan who is in Adelaide completing his University Degree) – his wife Munirah and their three daughters (Kathriena, Aisyha and Cahaya) that Munang midwifed into the world. His wife, a yoga teacher who specializes in pregnancy yoga, wanted to have a natural birth at home.

“I think natural childbirth is a rite of passage that everyone should see once in their life. It is an experience.. it is a beautiful moment,” Munang said. All three daughters were born in their bathtub at home, he said.

Munang said he is very much a “people’s person,” adding that the many opportunities to meet and interact with people of different walks of life in his current work were part of the attraction of the palm oil sector for him.

His emphasis on the personal level was also reflected in other aspects of life.

Referring to the recent COP 23 UN climate talks, he said there was a lot of talk about what big companies should and would do but there was little talk about what individuals could do. He said that the role of individuals in helping curb emissions of greenhouse gases should not be ignored.

“How should everybody responsible, how individuals, respond to it. (curbing emissions) . What do you do personally as a person to reduce the impact on the environment”  he asked, adding that people would have to make their choice sooner rather than later.

One thing individuals could start with, according to him, is reducing the amount of red meat they consumed. The global livestock industry is known as the biggest global carbon producer, larger than everything else put together, car emissions included.

And with soymeal being the most common feed for livestock, more livestock means more soymeal and that in turn means more soy production, more land needed to grow it.

Munang himself said that although he loved red meat just as others, he was intentionally reducing its consumption in favour of other types of proteins including vegetables.  He also walks, at least twice a week, from his office to his home, as part of his healthier lifestyle and a way to beat the jam.

Speaking of food, Japanese and all manner of Asian food, remain high on the list of his favourite fares, and Munang also said that he remained intrinsically Asian.

“After three days, I start shaking if there is no rice, curry or chilli,” he said.

Munang’s love for interaction with people is also reflected in his favourite pastimes.

He and his family like to travel and discover new culture and meet people. Munang also likes to play golf, also for the same reason, the people he plays with. “I enjoy the pleasure of their company a lot more than the quality of my golf now.”

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