Flood relief – A time to give
Mahbob Abdullah 
The current flood situation around the world, especially the US, is a good way of promoting our palm oil by donating to those affected by the disasters

I REMEMBER visiting Houston a few years ago and it is a flat brown plain with many tall buildings spread over a large area, broad highways and big cars including the Hummer that ate the miles easily.

Now from the comfort of our home we can see the news how the rains and the winds of Hurricane Harvey lashed the trees, tore the walls and roofs, and children got separated on their way to temporary shelters. Without power, hospitals could not operate, 18,000 schools were closed, and I could see old people were rescued from sinking cars.

The roads became rivers. The mass of water had a heavy count of E coli. It will take time for the land to get dry, much work to turn the wrecks into houses once more, and schools and life will have to start again. Although the Ünited States is considered a rich country, there are of course poor and needy people including in Houston, and they need help to work their way out of these troubles. 

The planting industry has always seen its share of troubles too, with crop pests and diseases, war, and falling prices, but it rode these crises. With help from many nationalities, we have persevered and then prospered. Now we can pause for a while and think how we can reach out and give a hand internationally.

It occurred to me that it would be a good idea to consider extending our hand to help the people in need, and there can be no better way than to choose from what we have and are good at, and this could be in the form of cooking oil. If the floods go on, and there is need for hot cooked food it may be an idea a few chefs could go and cook Malaysian dishes, Indian, Chinese and Malay, which the people and their children would remember for a long time. It is not purely altruism because the US is a big consumer of edible oil, and its consumption is on average over 50kg per head, compared to 20kg average for the world, yet the import of palm oil has been very little despite much effort in promotion that the industry has done.

We have organisations like the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) providing education and information on how food manufacturers can use the palm oil in so many ways. Similarly, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council has made many campaigns to promote palm oil, but our adversaries have been more successful in disparaging it. They do not want us to enter the market, and the resistance from other oils is very strong, although palm oil is now the biggest selling edible oil in the world.

The donation effort can be borne by the government, helped by the industry bodies such as the Malaysia Palm Oil Association which has members from major companies. With the high prices of crude palm oil (CPO) today at RM2,600 per tonne, and palm kernel at RM2,400 per tonne, there is some scope to give help, and yet see the prospects to show good results in the next reporting season.

The industry is also supported by other bodies all working in the interests of the oil palm and palm oil industry, including the Malaysian Estate Owners Association, a grouping of plantation companies, with mainly proprietors who manage the businesses. The other bodies include the Palm Oil Millers Association, whose members operate mills that may be independent or associated with plantations. Another association, Palm Oil Refiners Association of Malaysia, has members who buy the CPO and kernel oil and process them into products, including cooking oil, ghee and margarine.

Probably these bodies can band together and form a committee to choose how they can help the disaster areas and the people who are affected. The details can be worked out on how the money can be collected, perhaps managed by major banks and trustees, and the committee would approve unanimously on any help to be extended. Payments will be monitored and checks and balances put in place.

The committee can decide fast and send help without delay. Quick response will give the most impact for the people who need the help and we must get the most mileage from the publicity, to increase awareness on the value of our palm oil. By giving, we hope to build the goodwill that we have lost as lobbies have worked incessantly on anti-palm oil campaigns.

It is also good to consider approaching the Indonesian palm oil industry, through bodies similar to ours, as well as through the governments under the auspices of the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries. It is a body formed for collaboration on oil production and marketing. It would make both countries achieve a positive impact and increase the demand of palm oil and its products.

Help of course can be extended to other places too. Even now the floods are hitting areas in Bangladesh, much of that in the delta region where the Ganges and Brahmaputra meet. I had been on the road from Dhaka to Chittaggong and seen the huts and green ricefields of Comilla, and now with the floods there is no doubt the farmers would be short of food.

Floods are also happening in India, not only in Mumbai, but also in Bihar, a state that has its own series of problems with floods and droughts, and can do with any help they can get. There is flooding in Nepal, a friend of Malaysia during the Emergency, and even up to now its people come to work with us. Not so long ago they had suffered from an earthquake.

Disasters happen as we have seen with the tsunami in several countries, and houses and lives are lost in seconds. Many of the poor without insurance cover will need help. Aid is often received, but yet not enough. Many people wish to donate, but many are not sure if their donations will reach the target. If there are bodies that can be credible, it will be helpful, so they can give what they can, big or small. 

Mahbob Abdullah is a former planter. Comments:

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 249.