Oil palm plantations in Malaysia… is it worth it?

This year, the land coverage of oil palm plantations in Malaysia has already reached 15%. As shocking as this number can be, what is truly more terrifying is that, if this projection turns to be true, by 2020, 36% of Malaysia’s land will be covered with Palm Oil!

Why do we need palm oil so much that we need to cover 1/3rd of the country with these plantations?

Economy

As with everything, the most important reason is the economy. The World Bank and Asia Development Bank stated that the Malaysian palm oil industry employs 570,000 people and produces export earnings of more than RM68 billion.

That is a lot of money for a lot of people, right? This much of money divided by this many people would mean each one of these workers earns roughly 120,000 RM each year. However, since Jan 1st 2013, the minimum wage is RM900 a month in Peninsular Malaysia and RM800 a month in Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan, so all these blue-collar workers are actually making less than 12,000 RM a year.

From 120,000 to 12,000 RM a year is a big money difference, which is going to somebody else’s pockets. These workers are merely surviving with their wages, they do not really benefit from the huge economic output produced from palm oil. However, they do suffer the consequences produced from the palm oil industry.

Consumer choice

Consumers now have plenty of product brands to choose from. Among the never-ending list of brands containing palm oil, we have the following:

Source: ForestJustice.org

Source: ForestJustice.org

Comprising the following products:

Cereals Chocolates Chips Ice-cream
Biscuits Shampoos Conditioners Body wash
Soaps Toothpastes Mouthwash Shaving cream
Dairy Milk Cheese Butter Beans
Spaghetti Sauces & dressings Soups Frozen meals
Desserts Others…

This is a really long list, anyone must think it very difficult to do without all these many items. However, it is not true that palm oil is needed to produce all these products, since there are also many brands which are palm oil free.

(And also, our parents and grandparents lived without all these many brands and still they managed to live very well… so do we really need them to have a good life, as we are made believe?).

“Smear campaign” against the palm oil industry?

Due to negative effects of the palm oil industry, the European Union is aiming to only import certified sustainable palm oil, even though in Malaysia the palm oil industry seems to believe that there is a smear campaign against them, they are even asking us to support them. They argue the following:

Environmental activist groups […] have launched many campaigns alleging that the expansion of oil palm plantations have destroyed forests, threatened endangered wildlife and robbed indigenous peoples of their land. Many of their arguments are not based on fact but are sensationalized from a small and atypical number of cases

Small and atypical number of cases? Really? Maybe that’s why they also argue about oil palm plantations:

[…] it still occupies a small proportion of our total land area. The oil palm industry in Malaysia accounts for 15.5 per cent of total land area […]

Of course, if “only” 15.5% of the country is covered with oil palm plantations, then it’s only a small and atypical number of cases of forests destroyed, threatened endangered wildlife and robbed indigenous peoples.

And that means that, the more we plant palm oil, the more these cases will happen.

Consequences of oil palm plantations

Let’s see the consequences of oil palm plantations in a series of images. The information below has been taken from Say No To Palm Oil website.

Deforestation

Typically, the deforestation process is as follows; the Indonesian or Malaysian Government will first sell the land to wealthy foreigners owning palm oil companies and issue them a palm oil concession. The forest is logged of all its precious hardwood timber […]. The remaining trees, shrubs and debris are then set fire to. The land is cleared and flattened using heavy machinery to make way for rows and rows of oil palms.

Extinction of Orangutans and other species

Oil palm plantations are rapidly replacing the rainforest habitat of the critically endangered orangutan; with over 90% of their habitat already destroyed in the last 20 years.

Orangutans are considered to be pests by the palm oil industry. In the deforestation process, orangutans are often run over by logging machinery, beaten to death, buried alive or set on fire. Orangutans that wander into oil palm plantations are considered to be agricultural pest, because they have the potential to damage oil palm crops. In order to get rid of them, a bounty is often put on the orangutan’s head. If a female orangutan is found carrying a baby, the mother will be killed and the baby taken and kept as a pet, or sold on the illegal pet trade […].

There are many other unique animal species at threat of extinction due to palm oil, such as the: Sumatran Tiger, Asian Rhinoceros, Sumatran Rhinoceros, Sun Bear, Pygmy Elephant, Clouded Leopard and Proboscis Monkey.

(Btw, what happened with the case of the 14 pygmy elephants poisoned to death in Borneo? Any culprit found?)

Lost ecosystems

Everything in an ecosystem is connected. Picture it as if each species is a ‘cog’ in the ‘ecosystem machine’. We are currently pulling out thousands of cogs each year from the ecosystem machine of Borneo and Sumatra. Species like the orangutan are keystone species, meaning that if their cog is removed from the system, many, many other cogs will stop functioning as well. For example, […] many tree species can only germinate once passed through the gut of an orangutan; so if the orangutan is removed from the ecosystem, so are those tree species. And there may be many bird, insect or monkey species that rely on those trees as a main food source, so those cogs will also be removed from the system.

Human-Wildlife Conflict

(Taken from WWF’s Human-Tiger conflict article)

As growing human populations encroach ever further into natural habitats, people and tigers are increasingly competing over living space and food. The resulting conflict not only threatens the world’s remaining wild tigers, but poses a major problem for communities living in or near tiger habitat. If tigers do not have enough prey (due to hunting of prey species by people or poor quality habitat), they will instead hunt domestic livestock – which many local communities depend on for their livelihood.

Barren Land

Oil palm plantation will only last for approximately 20 to 50 years before then the soil is completely drained of its vital nutrients and the palm trees too matured to produce palm fruit, which is why palm oil is very much a short-term commodity, and not a long-term sustainable solution.

Removal of Indigenous people

[…] Plantations destroy the rainforest land that the local people depend on, therefore giving them no choice but to become employed as plantation workers, operating under extremely dangerous conditions and barely earning enough money to survive.

Destroying the forest is destroying the livelihood and culture of these unique people. An example of this is shown in a documentary where Din Perulak, the Chief of Sumatran tribe “Orang Rimba Sumatra” says:
“I am so unhappy about these gigantic new oil palm plantations. Our forest which we, Orang Rimba, have gathered fruit, which has sustained us, has completely disappeared. There are plantations everywhere. I ask you: how are we supposed to survive when there is no forest anymore?”

Health

Due to its high saturated fat content, palm oil promotes heart disease, increases cholesterol level, raises blood pressure, therefore a key contributing factor to obesity. These four health issues are the main causes of one of the world’s biggest killers: cardiovascular disease (also known as heart disease). […] Palm oil is also high in Omega 6 fatty acid, which is associated with arthritis, inflammation, and even breast and prostate cancer.

Global Warming and Environmental Degradation

[…] The production of this one vegetable oil is not only responsible for polluting rivers and causing land erosion, but when the plantation workers set fire to the remaining trees, shrubs and debris to make way for the oil palms, it produces immense amount of smoke pollution that is toxic to planet earth. This has been found to be the second biggest contributor to greenhouse gas in the world.

So, is it worth it?

Is it worth to have 1/3rd of Malaysia covered with oil palm plantations, so that big multinationals corporations keep reaping the short-term economic benefits, and leave us all suffering the long-term consequences?

I think it is not.

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