Webinar on “Sabah’s Approach to Palm Oil: Sustainability, Controversy & Business Opportunity”

In this webinar, Datuk Frederick Kugan, Dr Glyn Davies, and Mr Joshua Lim showcased Sabah’s efforts to ensure the environmental sustainability of its palm oil production, as well as the importance the product has for its state economy.


Friday, 12 August 2022 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute convened a panel of experts and practitioners to discuss how the Malaysian state of Sabah has sought to balance the demands of environmental sustainability of oil palm with economic development. The guest speakers spanned a diverse background from government officials, environmental conservation groups and palm oil producers. Datuk Frederick Kugan is the Chief Conservator of Forests in Sabah, and co-chairs the Jurisdictional Certification Steering Committee (JCSC) which spearheads the implementation of the Sabah Jurisdictional Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (JCSPO) Initiative. Dr Glyn Davies is presently senior advisor for WWF Malaysia and has extensive experience in global conservation. He obtained his PhD in Rainforest Ecology from Cambridge University. Mr Joshua Lim is Wilmar’s Global Coordinator for Sustainability & Supply Chain and oversees the delivery of sustainable supply and sourcing.

Sabah’s Approach to Palm Oil: Sustainability, Controversy & Business Opportunity
Dr Serina Rahman, Associate Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, moderated the panel. With speakers Datuk Frederick Kugan, Dr Glyn Davies, and Mr Joshua Lim. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Datuk Frederick began the webinar with an overview of Sabah forest cover. He argued that contrary to the common (mis)perception, Sabah has retained vast tracts of forest with forest cover at 65 per cent of Sabah’s total land mass. In addition, 48% of Sabah is classified under Forest Reserve (3.5 million hectare) with two million hectares of the land under total protected areas. Datuk Frederick subsequently provided an introduction of JCSPO spearheaded by the Sabah state government to promote sustainable palm oil production. The objectives of JCSPO are to transform Sabah’s palm oil production, halt deforestation, restore the ecosystem and secure sustainable livelihoods.

Datuk Frederick shared that JCSPO establishes the governance framework which enables RSPO group certification, which is more cost-effective than the conventional RSPO certification. Sabah is pursuing the more rigorous RSPO standards, since compared to MSPO the latter has more stringent requirements for sustainability. In addition, RSPO certified palm oil is usually able to fetch a higher price on the world market which in turn improves the incomes of cultivators. Datuk Frederick commented that the state government has an ambitious goal for all Sabah-produced palm oil to be RSPO certified by 2025.

Dr Davies started his presentation with a summary of the issues associated with oil palm cultivation. Apart from deforestation and displacement of natives as forests are converted into plantations, there are concerns of labour standards. He shared that WWF Malaysia has promoted conservation and sustainable development through the three prongs of protect, produce and restore. WWF Malaysia has also collaborated with various stakeholders in Sabah to support RSPO group certification through the jurisdictional approach.

Mr Lim presented on the production angle of sustainable palm oil in Sabah. Mr Lim commented that Sabah has a total of 1.5 million hectares of oil palm plantations with almost all (1.48 million hectare) being MSPO certified. In addition, 400,000 hectares also received RSPO certification. Among all Malaysian states, Sabah is the largest producer with an annual output of 4 million tons of palm oil. The bulk of Sabah palm oil is exported to other countries, with most RSPO certified palm oil exported to Asian countries rather than Europe. Mr Lim added that there is a market for RSPO certified palm oil even in Asia, contrary to the common perception.

In the question-and-answer session, questions raised include the obstacles preventing mid-size plantations from achieving RSPO certification, the platforms for Sabah state government to engage smallholders, among others. The webinar drew a turnout of 80 participants.