Hailing from the concrete jungle of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Akmal Razali was not what you’d call a familiar friend of the forest.
Born and raised a city-boy, he moved away from home in early adolescence – first to boarding school in Melaka and then to Penang for his tertiary education. After graduating with a zoology degree, Akmal was undecided on his direction.
While his future remained uncertain, he always had a passion for large cats because of their beauty and grace – even if he’d only experienced them through screens. It was this interest in felines that led him to Rimba, a non-profit conservation organisation.
As part of their team protecting Malaysian tigers and leopards, Akmal travelled to the stunningly biodiverse landscape of Terengganu to study and care for these famously agile creatures. It was at this time that he first heard of Earthworm, when the two organisations briefly collaborated. Wanting to explore a different side of conservation, he began his journey at Earthworm.
Today, he works to help palm oil companies implement their sustainability commitments. But his main goal is to reduce further deforestation in Malaysia. Some companies need more support to alleviate environmental risks in their operations, and that’s where Akmal’s team steps in.
"Awareness of market requirements for sustainability is lacking," he said. "But they are ready to change once they realise what’s going on."
During visits to some of these mills and plantations, he inspects their processes and helps them identify potential risks. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s been stuck at home like the rest of us. But that hasn't stopped his team from organising virtual meetings to keep projects moving.
The challenge lies in persuading people who might not share the same view – getting them to see his side and the bigger picture.
"We don't disregard the fact that palm oil is connected to the livelihoods of so many people," he said. "What we are looking for is a working solution that brings the least effect to the environment."
The field team's work involves being the communication bridge between international sustainability standards and people on the ground – smallholders, planters and dealers, Akmal said.
"Talking to people on the ground using language they understand increases awareness of sustainability," he said. "Couple that with success stories about the business case to improve practices – this is what drives change."