In 2012, and within the framework of EFTA, Switzerland initiated negotiations with Malaysia on a free trade agreement. Loud criticism against the agreement was voiced at an early stage; a broad coalition opposed the removal of tariffs on palm oil. There are numerous concerns around the production of palm oil: local populations are displaced and valuable primary rainforest is cleared to serve the growing need for land for palm oil plantations. Local and foreign workers toil away on plantations, often under conditions that violate international labour and human rights. As part of this coalition, Public Eye called for palm oil to be excluded from the free trade agreement.

The seventh round of negotiations on the free trade agreement between EFTA and Malaysia that concluded in June 2016 in Geneva made it clear that there were significant differences in the positions of the negotiation partners, especially when it came to the issue of palm oil (see the FTA with Indonesia).

There was significant opposition in Switzerland to Malaysia’s insistence on a reduction in import tariffs for palm oil: in a petition signed by 20,000 people, a coalition of development, environmental, consumer protection and human rights organisations as well as farmers’ representatives called for palm oil to be exempt from the free trade agreement. In addition to the labour and human rights issues that are at the heart of Public Eye’s work, there are a number of other reasons why palm oil should not be exempt from tariffs.

Following a three-year interruption, negotiations with Malaysia resumed in 2020. In the meantime, however, Switzerland had concluded the agreement with Indonesia that stipulates that only sustainably produced palm oil receive preferential treatment in terms of tariffs on entering Switzerland (see Indonesia). And, as promised by SECO, this approach shall also become part of the FTA with Malaysia. The approach is meeting with huge resistance from the Malaysian side, complicating negotiations.

In addition to the palm oil issue, Public Eye is critical of Switzerland demanding that Malaysia introduces strict plant variety protection laws (a kind of patent protection on seeds). It would deprive farmers of free access to seeds. In his recent report, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Michael Fakhri, also called on states to refrain from making such demands in trade agreements. The right of farmers to retain, exchange and sell seeds for the next sowing season must be guaranteed as an indivisible fundamental right and must take precedence over intellectual property rights.

As a member of the Swiss coalition that fights for the right to seeds (“Recht auf Saatgut”), Public Eye has already been fighting this demand in Swiss trade agreements for years. The coalition has published a letter to EFTA ministers signed by more than 250 organisations, in which it criticises the demand, especially in the case of Malaysia, as completely incomprehensible. The country already has a good plant variety protection law in place that respects the rights of farmers to seeds within a limited framework.