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Malaysia must protect environment, indigenous rights as it reduces poverty – UN expert

Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter.
UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré
Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter.

Malaysia must protect environment, indigenous rights as it reduces poverty – UN expert

After moving significantly towards reducing poverty, Malaysia must ensure that such gains do not come at the expense of the environment and the rights of vulnerable groups in society such as indigenous communities and migrant workers, a United Nations expert warned today.

“Malaysia has made impressive progress towards the reduction of poverty and has improved on all socio-economic indicators,” UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food Olivier De Schutter said at the end of a 10-day official visit to the South-East Asian country.

“As it moves towards becoming a high-income country, it must address what may be called ‘second-generation’ development issues.”

He hailed the country’s significant achievements towards full realization of the right to food, including the adoption this year of minimum wage legislation, which, he said, “will make great strides in ensuring that access to food is a reality for the working poor in the country.”

But despite this progress, challenges remain. “Ending poverty means effectively safeguarding against exploitation,” Mr. Schutter stressed, referring to the precarious situation of up to 4 million migrant workers primarily working on palm oil plantations.

Palm oil, which dominates Malaysia’s agricultural sector, occupying 5 million hectares – over 70 per cent of its arable land, producing 39 per cent of global palm oil and accounting for 44 per cent of global exports – has sparked environmental concern due to deforestation, biodiversity loss and soil nutrient depletion.

The expert, who serves in an independent capacity and reports to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council, warned that a focus on export-led commodity production makes Malaysia highly vulnerable to price shocks on international markets, since it depends on imports for basic foodstuffs, including 30 per cent of rice, Malaysia’s main staple, 66 per cent of fruits, and 41 per cent of vegetables.

He identified human rights challenges with regard to indigenous communities in Peninsular Malaysia and in Malaysian Borneo, urging that their rights, as recognized in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, be fully respected.

“When development projects affect the land on which they rely for their food and livelihood, they must be given a real say in the matter,” he stressed. “They must provide free, prior and informed consent, on the basis of well-tested human rights principles, and be enabled to participate in and shape the development of their communities.”

He welcomed the national inquiry into the land rights of indigenous peoples conducted by the Malaysian Human Rights Commission. “I trust its recommendations will lead to a reorientation of policies to better protect the rights of indigenous communities,” he said, calling for the creation of a national commission for indigenous peoples.

He welcomed the Malaysian authorities’ efforts to ensure healthier diets, including initiatives to improve the dietary quality of school meals.