14 Samuel Cohodas – The Repercussions of Oil Palm Cultivation in Southeast Asia

Samuel Cohodas

English 102

The Repercussions of Oil Palm Cultivation in Southeast Asia

With international trade revolutionizing the world’s economic atmosphere, the economies of many underdeveloped nations are experiencing rapid growth in their gross domestic product. In many cases, this expeditious growth is being fueled at the expense of the nation’s ecology, environment, and inhabitants. Nowhere is this trend more pronounced than in the burgeoning economies of Indonesia and Malaysia. The tropical climate of these southeast Asian nations creates an ideal environment for the cultivation of elais, commonly referred to as the oil palm (Carlson and Curran). Upon the palm’s maturation, its fleshy fruits are harvested in order to extract the valuable oil within. Subsequently, the oil is refined and sold by agricultural conglomerates to corporations across the globe. Once sold, the newly refined palm oil is manufactured into a variety of household products ranging from shampoo to candy to lipstick (Michaelson). When combined, Indonesia and Malaysia account for nearly ninety percent of all palm oil produced throughout the world (Levin).  Although palm oil harvesting carries immense economic benefits, the environmental and ecological destruction, and human rights abuses occurring within the palm oil industry should lead the Indonesian and Malaysian governments to place a moratorium on oil palm cultivation.

Indisputably, the palm oil industry has played an integral role in the globalization of Indonesia’s economy. According to a recent report by World Growth,

For the last decade, palm oil has been Indonesia’s most significant agricultural export. In 2008, Indonesia exported over $14.5 billion in palm oil related products.  The Indonesian palm oil industry has experienced significant growth in recent years with approximately 1.3 million hectare of new area dedicated to plantations since 2005. [..] This substantial expansion is due to higher returns driven by stronger [global] demand.

World Growth’s report reveals just how significant the palm oil industry is to Indonesia’s economy. With total palm oil exports reaching nearly $15 billion, and global demand continuing to surge, the palm oil industry will play a vital role in Indonesia’s future economic prosperity. On the macro level, the significance of oil palm cultivation is clear, but much of the wealth generated by the industry also trickles down to the impoverished, rural regions of Indonesia and Malaysia.

The palm oil industry is responsible for the employment of millions of Indonesians and Malaysians. According to Joshua Levin of the World Wildlife Foundation, “In Malaysia, the palm oil sector employs 590000 direct workers (including many laborers imported from Indonesia}, and 35% of production derives from small [land] holders. In Indonesia, 3.7 million people are engaged in the palm oil industry […] with 45% of production [coming] from small [land] holders.” With nearly four million citizens employed between the two nations, it is clear that palm oil harvesting is a vital cog in the microeconomic engines of Indonesia and Malaysia. Ostensibly, as worldwide demand for palm oil escalates, additional plantations will need to be constructed, and laborers hired, to keep pace with international demand.

Furthermore, as a result of the large area needed to cultivate oil palms, most palm oil plantations are constructed in the rural areas of Indonesia and Malaysia. These rural regions, often stricken by severe poverty, supply much of the labor force needed to harvest and process the fruits of the oil palm. Unlike the urban cities of Malaysia and Indonesia, economic opportunity in the rural regions of these two states is severely limited. However, the palm oil industry has supplied rural laborers with a steady income and increased economic mobility. This increased mobility is especially prevalent among the small land holders who sell their reapings directly to the agricultural conglomerates (World Growth). Furthermore, the infrastructure of many rural villages has been improved as a result of nearby oil palm plantations. Clearly, the palm oil industry has improved the quality of life among hundreds of thousands of rural citizens throughout Malaysia and Indonesia. Despite the fact that a government imposed moratorium on oil palm cultivation would cripple the economies of many rural villages, the ecological and environmental destruction wrought by palm oil harvesting make the moratorium a necessary tradeoff.

The deforestation techniques implemented by palm oil companies to clear land for plantations is releasing substantial amounts of carbon into the earth’s atmosphere. According to Dr. Kimberly Carlson, a professor of agroecosystems at the University of Hawaii,

Forest and peatland conversion to plantation agriculture may be a substantial source of greenhouse gas emission from land cover change. [And] from 1990 to 2010, oil palm area increased 600%. Over 90% of this development occurred in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo. […] As a result of the extensive deforestation,[Indonesia’s] annual greenhouse gas emissions […] are sourced predominantly from land cover/land use change.

As the international demand for palm oil continues to escalate, Indonesia’s finite forests and peatlands are being cleared for additional oil palm plantations. Forests, and especially peatlands, harbor significant amounts of carbon (Carlson). When the land is cleared, usually by controlled fires, the stored carbon is emitted into the atmosphere contributing significantly to global climate change.

On the other hand, some people contend that the recently imposed environmental standards agreed to by some of the major palm oil conglomerates will lessen the environmental and ecological impact of oil palm cultivation. As Joshua Levin writes, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil was created in order address the environmental and ecological concerns stemming from oil palm cultivation. The RSPO and its member corporations have implemented certain methods for sustainable oil palm cultivation. These methods include cleaner agricultural practices, environmental risk assessments, and additional labeling on consumer goods. Levin notes, that since its founding, RSPO certified palm oil now represents a significant share of the market. But, while the RSPO members seems to be improving their agricultural practices, their motives are not purely altruistic. As Dr. Biruté Galdikas, one of the foremost experts on orangutan conservation writes, while members of the RSPO may only produce sustainable palm oil, often 90% of the palm oil they sell is purchased from third-party producers allowing corporations to bypass the RSPO standards. In other words, under the guise of sustainability, RSPO members are knowingly skirting their own self-imposed standards for the sake of economic gain. Worse yet, consumers will be purposely misled to believe that the products they purchase contain sustainable palm oil. Despite the minimal sustainability standards, rainforests will continue to be converted to plantations, and wild animals will be the primary victims.

Due to land clearing for oil palm plantations, the Bornean and Sumatran orangutan are being critically threatened. According to Dr. Erik Meijaard, a professor of environmental science at Queensland University, and Dr. Douglas Sheil, a professor of forest ecology at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences,

The main impact of oil palm on orangutans is habitat loss. […] Orangutans are primarily arboreal creatures […] [And] as long as oil palm does not offer a food resource and forest fragments within the oil palm [plantation] are small, degraded, and few, it is doubtful that an oil palm [plantation] can sustain a viable resident orangutan population in the long-term (605-606).

Since orangutans are arboreal primates, they require large amounts of raised forest lands in order to survive. And as oil palm plantations continue to encroach upon the limited hectares of forests, orangutans are forced to migrate to other regions as they can not adequately survive among the oil palm plantations. But with demand for palm oil growing, it is inevitable that the palm oil conglomerates and small land holders will penetrate further into the remaining orangutan habitat, leaving nothing but ecological destruction in their wake. Although the exact implications of this further deforestation are unclear, it stands to reason that the remaining orangutan population will be decimated. Without a strict moratorium on oil palm cultivation, one of man’s biological brethren will soon be pushed to the brink of extinction.

Similarly, the Sumatran tiger is being critically endangered by the encroachment of oil palm plantations. As the Greenpeace report “License to Kill” states, “palm oil alone was responsible for 15% of the loss of tiger habitat, and the vast majority of the forest cleared [was] in identified oil palm concessions [within] Sumatra during 2009-2011.” As with the orangutan, the Sumatran tiger requires large areas of rainforest to survive. With oil palm plantations expanding rapidly, the already fragile tiger population is being put under immense pressure.

Furthermore, as forests are raised, Sumatran tigers are forced to hunt in areas with human inhabitants. This can lead to dangerous human-tiger interactions. According to the report “License to Kill”, “Between 1998 and 2011, 638 human-tiger conflicts were recorded in Sumatra. In which tigers killed 72 people, [..] these conflicts resulted in the death of 59 tigers-a significant loss considering that only an estimated 400 Sumatran tigers remain in the wild today.” In the past, human-tiger interactions would have been an anomaly. But since the dawn of the twenty first century, ever-expanding oil palm plantations have forced the Sumatran tiger to forage outside of its habitat. Upon leaving its habitat, the Sumatran tiger is significantly more susceptible to a fatal interaction with humans. Even worse, with so few remaining tigers in the Indonesian wild, each tiger fatality decreases the Sumatran population by nearly half a percent. Additionally, the fewer tigers there are in the wild, the less offspring the tigers will spawn, creating a negative feedback reaction among the future tiger population. Not only does palm oil harvesting generate ecological destruction, but it carries a human cost as well.

As a result of the Malaysian government’s refusal to recognize the stateless migrants within its borders, palm oil conglomerates are able to exploit the vulnerable migrants for their own economic gain. According to Jason Motlagh, an investigative journalist for The Atlantic, tens of thousands of stateless children inhabit Malaysia’s Sabah province. These children, often borne to migrant parents from Indonesia and the Philippines, have no means of verifying their nationalities, and are thus barred from receiving medical care and schooling from the Malaysian government. With limited options, Motlagh reports that these voiceless children are forced to toil in the harsh palm oil plantations for a few dollars a day while agricultural conglomerates reap billion-dollar profits. The belief that human rights be sacrificed for economic gain is a difficult argument to pose. Yet, the modern-day government of Malaysia permits these child migrants to labor in oil palm plantations on behalf of private corporations. While these palm oil conglomerates earn billions of dollars in profits, child laborers are denied societal norms, such as healthcare. A state-enforced moratorium on oil palm cultivation would free these vulnerable migrants from the grasp of avaricious corporations.

As the economies of Indonesia and Malaysia continue to benefit from oil palm cultivation, the ecology, environment, wildlife, and humans of these nations suffer. Considering how valuable the palm oil trade is two these southeast Asian states, severing ties with the industry will be challenging. But a government imposed moratorium on oil palm cultivation is a necessary sacrifice in order to save the environment and its surrounding ecology.



Works Cited

Carlson, Kimberly M., and Lisa M. Curran. “Committed Carbon Emissions, Deforestation, and Community Land Conversion from Oil Palm Plantation Expansion in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.” National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. JSTOR, 8 May 2012. Web. 27 Mar. 2016.

“Dr. Birutè Galdikas.” Interview by Kristina Simona. EcoPostBlog.com. EcoPost, 16 June 2014. Web. 30 Mar. 2016.

Levin, Joshua. Profitability and Sustainability of Palm Oil Production. Rep. World WildLife Fund, Mar. 2012. Web. 1 May 2016.

“License to Kill.”  Greenpeace.org. Greenpeace, Oct. 2013. Web. 29 Apr. 201

Meijaard, Erik, and Sheil Douglas. “Oil-Palm Plantations in The Context of Biodiversity Conservation.” Encyclopedia of Biodiversity. Ed. Simon A. Levin. Second ed. Vol. 5.         Amsterdam: Elsevier, Academic, 2013. 600-12. Print.

Michaelson, Jay. “The World Runs on Palm Oil, and That Fueling Climate Change.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast, 15 Dec. 2015. Web. 27 Apr. 2016.

Motlagh, Jason. “Palm Oil for the West, Exploitation for Young Workers in Malaysia.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 9 Apr. 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2016

World Growth. The Economic Benefits of Palm Oil to Indonesia. Rep. World Growth, Feb. 2011. Web.


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