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Sime Darby Plantation's Commitment to Forest and Biodiversity Conservation

Interview with Datuk Mohamad Helmy Othman Basha, Sime Darby Plantation Group Managing Director

Renowned as a leading player in the palm oil industry, Sime Darby Plantation will be a Summit Partner of the upcoming World Biodiversity Summit 2023 which addresses the urgent need for biodiversity restoration through Nature-based Solutions and nature-positive investments. At the Summit, Chief Sustainability Officer Rashyid Redza Anwarudin will bring forth his contributions as a speaker during the “The Nature-Positive Supply Chain – A Systems Change for Business” session.

In this interview, Sime Darby Plantation’s Group Managing Director Datuk Mohamad Helmy Othman Basha shares his profound insights into the company’s steadfast dedication to championing forest conservation and the preservation of biodiversity.

- At Sime Darby Plantation, what is driving the forest and biodiversity conservation efforts?

Sime Darby Plantation (SDP) is the world’s largest producer of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO), and we take our responsibilities as a corporate citizen seriously. SDP is working hard to drive deforestation out of our supply chain while we step up efforts to reforest and improve the biodiversity in our conservation areas.

We have operations in three of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world – Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (PNG). In all three countries, tropical forests are of course crucial for biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation, however, the palm oil industry is also a critical contributor to socio-economic development. As such, our approach to the problem has to be measured and calculated to achieve the right balance.

Many may not realise that the palm oil industry has demonstrated tremendous and continuous improvement in sustainable practices and standards over the last two decades.

- Datuk Mohamad Helmy Othman Basha, Sime Darby Plantation Group Managing Director

Today, the industry maintains the most stringent sustainability standards among all edible oil industries in the world. These include the voluntary certification of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and the compulsory national certifications in the two largest palm oil producing countries – the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) and the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO). These standards demand strict commitment from producers to protect and conserve forests and biodiversity.

SDP’s operations are 100% certified to all these sustainability standards, but additionally, we go above and beyond the standards to conserve and propagate forests and biodiversity. At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, Malaysia pledged to maintain at least 50 percent forest cover. Today, more than three decades later, the nation’s forest cover stands at 54.6% or 18.04 million hectares. According to the latest data from Global Forest Watch, both Indonesia and Malaysia have also managed to keep rates of primary forest loss to near record-low levels. SDP supports all such national efforts and works closely with the authorities to ensure that national priorities are achieved sustainably.

- How does SDP incorporate biodiversity conservation in its business policy and practices?

We are a 200-year-old company and we have survived several existential threats throughout our history. Thus, we understand the critical importance of real sustainability practices. We pioneered some of the sustainability standards in the palm oil industry today, such as the zero-burning replanting technique, over 30 years ago. And we have never stopped improving on our own practices by adopting other leading international standards to cater to the evolving challenges surrounding Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG).

Our Responsible Agriculture Charter (RAC), launched in 2016, outlines our commitment to No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation (NDPE) and our approach towards safeguarding the environment.

- Datuk Mohamad Helmy Othman Basha, Sime Darby Plantation Group Managing Director

We have also recently committed to net-zero emissions across our entire value chain by 2050. Guided by this charter and our net-zero commitment, we are expanding our efforts to make positive contributions to forests in key landscapes through several conservation and restoration programmes. The initiatives help us to enhance biodiversity and ecosystems whilst offsetting our carbon footprint.

In 2021, we launched our Conservation and Biodiversity Area (CBA) initiative, to guide the protection, restoration, and connectivity of specific sites through tailored action plans. We have, to date, identified 47,308 hectares of high conservation value (HCV) and conservation set-aside (CSA) areas in our operation areas. We ensure that these conservation areas are well managed and monitored to prevent illegal development, poaching, and hunting.

To support our CBA restoration efforts, we have established new satellite nurseries, providing tree saplings of endemic forest species and forest fruit trees for planting in identified areas. Our aim is to introduce endangered, rare and threatened (ERT) species with a density of 600-1,000 saplings per hectare in our conservation areas, whenever feasible.

- What are some of SDP’s key milestones and achievements in forest and biodiversity conservation initiatives?

One of our main initiatives is our reforestation initiative, the SDP ‘Plant-A-Tree’ Programme which was first launched in 2008. Under this programme, we have planted close to 1.9 million forest trees, including 120 ERT species. This initiative is carried out in various landscapes across our operations including orangutan habitat, mangrove areas, peat swamps, riparian and coastal areas. We have a target to plant a total of 3 million forest trees by 2025 under this initiative.

We have documented the growth of fauna and flora in the areas we have planted in two pocket guidebooks. The first, launched in 2019, documents the largest collection of ERT species in a single area in West Malaysia, at our Jentar Estate tree-planting site. The second pocket guide, launched in 2022, documents the avifauna species recorded in four of our estates in four different states in West Malaysia. We expect our reforestation initiatives to flourish and help us succeed in creating a gene pool for these ERT species, with the ultimate objective of removing these species from the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Giam Rambai or Hopea polyalthioides is one of the 60 endangered, rare, and threatened (ERT) species of forest trees planted at the tree planting site in SDP’s Kerdau Estate.

Many of our conservation projects have also involved collaborations with like-minded partners who share our commitment to forest and biodiversity conservation. We currently have an ongoing collaboration with Nestlé Malaysia called Project RELeaf, to plant over 1 million trees across 1,200 hectares of riparian zones and steep slopes within our estates. To date, over 420,000 trees have been planted under this project and we expect to plant another 390,000 trees by the end of 2023.

Recently, we started a collaboration with the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) for a one-year project to study otters along a coastal mangrove belt known as North Central Selangor Coast (NCSC). The idea is to promote the conservation of wild otters along this coastline in West Malaysia, and to engage plantation management and workers on human-otter conflicts.

We also undertake several initiatives through our philanthropic arm, the Sime Darby Foundation (YSD). Together with YSD, we have undertaken many outstanding works in biodiversity conservation. YSD is supporting important causes such as the National Zoo of Malaysia, anti-poaching initiatives, and the protection of many endangered, threatened and vulnerable animal species such as the Malayan Tigers, elephants, orangutans, Proboscis monkeys, clouded leopards, Bantengs and Bornean sun bears, with more than 30 project partners over the last decade. Together with YSD, we partnered with the Sabah Forestry Department in 2008 to restore an orangutan habitat conservation site in Bukit Piton Forest Reserve in Sabah, East Malaysia. The project which covered a total area of 11,612 hectares in the Ulu Segama-Malua Sustainable Forest is an important area for orangutan conservation efforts. It houses the largest orangutan population in Sabah with around 3,500 to 4,000 individuals. The project has resulted in the substantial increase of naturally occurring orangutan nests in the area.

In PNG, we are involved in efforts to conserve the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing butterfly (QABB), the world’s largest butterfly with a wingspan of 19cm to 30cm. The species is endemic to northern PNG and has an extremely limited home range. We have designated certain forest areas in our operations to preserve its habitat. With YSD’s contributions, we also built and equipped a dedicated laboratory, flight cages and food plant nurseries within our secure residential and operations compound, to breed the QABB in captivity. We aim to release them into previously inhabited areas enriched with additional food plants and hopefully, remove the QABB from the endangered species list.

SDP’s research work in collaboration with YSD, Management and Ecology of Malaysian Elephants (MEME), and the University of Nottingham Malaysia (UNM) to address human-elephant conflicts has also contributed to the development of our standard operating procedures for Human-Wildlife Conflict Mitigation. The SOP, published in 2020, is a valuable guide for managing human-wildlife conflicts in our plantations and also for researchers, academics and NGOs.

Jahai tribe youths are trained by the Malayan Tiger Protector Association (RIMAU) to help keep poachers away. Photo courtesy of RIMAU.

Last year, YSD collaborated with the Malayan Tiger Protector Association (RIMAU) to equip, train and deploy two patrol teams to help keep poachers away and facilitate the repopulation of the Malayan Tiger in the Royal Belum State Park, in West Malaysia. With less than 150 tigers currently in the wild, these majestic animals could become extinct within a decade. This initiative also provides an alternative sustainable livelihood for members of the patrol team, which comprises youths from the indigenous Jahai tribe.

- What are some of the key lessons learnt from the various forest and biodiversity conservation activities?

The key learning from all our various initiatives is the importance of committing the time and financial resources to ensure success. There are few shortcuts or quick fixes for this global level challenge. Due to the scale of the problem, it is also absolutely critical to work in partnership with as many genuine, like-minded organisations. One of the biodiversity projects that we have had the privilege of funding over the years is the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) project by the Southeast Asia Rainforest Research Programme (SEARRP). Funded by YSD, SAFE is the largest ecological experiment in the world, to understand the impact of human activity on natural forests. Under SAFE, scientists and researchers worked together with the palm oil industry to understand land use change impact on forests. Another key learning was how to minimise ecological impact in an agricultural area such as oil palm plantations. For instance, we learnt that preserving sections of forest within modified landscapes can protect biodiversity and ecosystem function. SAFE has contributed significantly to our understanding of how sustainable plantation management and the conservation of biodiversity can mutually integrate. The findings from SAFE have been published and are available to anybody who is interested.


About Sime Darby Plantation

Sime Darby Plantation (SDP) is the world's largest producer of Certified Sustainable Palm Oil. Throughout their 200-year history, SDP has pioneered change in the palm oil industry. They introduced the ‘Zero Burning Replanting Technique’ back in 1985 for which they received the UNEP Global 500 Roll of Honour for Environmental Achievement in 1992. SDP is a founding member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a voluntary certification scheme with the most stringent standards in the entire edible oil industry. In 2016, SDP committed to No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation, and have implemented wide scale Nature-based Solutions that will help them achieve their 2050 net-zero emissions targets while supporting biodiversity in rehabilitated areas. Over the past 14 years, SDP has planted close to 1.9 million forest trees and dedicated about 47,000 ha to conservation.

About the author

With a distinguished career in finance and management, Datuk Mohamad Helmy Othman Basha has occupied senior roles in prominent companies in Malaysia, such as the Shell Malaysia Group and Guthrie Group. Following the formation of Sime Darby Berhad (SDB) in 2007, he was appointed Head, Upstream (Malaysia) of Sime Darby Plantation (SDP) which was a subsidiary and the plantation arm of SDB. SDP became a publicly listed company on Bursa Malaysia in 2017 following the demerger of SDB and Datuk Mohamad Helmy assumed the position of SDP’s Group Managing Director since 2019. He is also the current Chairman of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board, a Fellow of ACCA, and a member of several prestigious organisations in Malaysia, including the Malaysian Palm Oil Association Council, Malaysian Palm Oil Council’s Board of Trustees, the National Wages Consultative Council, Malaysian Institute of Accountants, and the Incorporated Society of Planters.


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