A consideration on the palm oil industry’s service and disservice to humankind and our duty in finding that balance between development and sustainability.
Last week on LoyarBurok, I read Heroes of the Palm Oil Milling Industry by Jonathan Fun, capturing the stories of ordinary workers in the palm oil milling industry – an industry that produces the raw materials for many of our day to day consumables. A heart warming story reminding us the people who sacrifice their sweat, blood, and youth to feed the world, their country, and their family.
Jonathan was right in pointing out that the palm oil industry is working on borrowed land. The process of a sector growing to be the major employer of a country is often at the expense of the local resources and ecosystem. While the palm oil industry provides employment to more close to a million people (or maybe more), we must not forget in the process of doing so, the oil palm industry has displace countless local communities, and is still continuing to do so.
As land in the Peninsular became scarcer, the search for new land for oil palm plantations moved to East Malaysia, one of the highest bio-diversified regions. In the state of Sarawak alone, the total planted area covers more than 830,000ha. Over the years, there are countless reports of indigenous communities displaced by oil palm plantations.
Also important to note, is that many of these plantations were controversially planted on cleared peat forest – a very fragile land which acts as an important carbon sink. Peat land is easily available, especially in Sarawak, but the clearing of forests and draining of the peat soil releases the stored organic carbon into the atmosphere.
While Jonathan mentioned the like of Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) which was set up to ensure sustainable practices being implemented across the industry, one must not discount the fact the implementation is far more complicated that it sounds. Since its establishment in 2002, only 1.5 million tonnes of the annual global production of 45 million tonnes of palm oil were certified by the RSPO. Malaysian and Indonesian plantations have been criticising RSPO for being too restrictive and argue that the RSPO certified palm oil take up by western consumers is disappointing. Plantations from both the countries have threatened to pull out from RSPO, with Indonesian delegates walked out from the 6th General Assembly of RSPO in Bali, 2008.
The point is, RSPO is far more complicated than we all know, because the world is addicted to cheap and unsustainable practices. Furthermore RSPO’s credibility has come under attack.
Self regulation among the plantations may be the answer towards a more sustainable palm oil industry. For example, Kulim (M) Bhd has set up joint patrol with Wildlife Conservation Society near the Endau-Rompin Park as part of tiger conservation effort. Some other plantations, and mills, for both financial and environmental reasons, have voluntarily adopted measures, such as setting up palm waste biomass facilities, to reduce carbon emissions.
The question is how many plantations are willing to self regulate and will it be too late by the time we have most of them onboard?
As Jonathan has reminded us, the next time you eat a biscuit, a piece of chocolate, or when you spread margarine onto your bread, think about the sacrifices of these great men and women who have worked so hard in order to keep our stomachs full. We must also be mindful of the social and environmental impact of these foods we are consuming.
Every industry creates jobs and feed stomach but it is always in the expense of the local ecosystem, the question is how to balance both.
I would venture say that mankind has yet to find an answer to that… but we can make difference if we keep trying in every little way we can, one day at a time.
Leong ChowPong sells black in the day and turns green at night; “I fade in and out of existence; and I walk both world, to deliver the message in completeness.”