Southeast Asia — The oil palm must be the most reviled plant on earth, heldresponsible for everything from rainforest destruction and orangutanannihilation to polluted Asian skies and exploitation of workers.
But lately, high crude oil prices and new health concerns have given thetowering palm, grown mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia, a surprising new statusas an environmental saviour.
Palm oil production and prices are soaring as it finds favour as a source ofeco-friendly biofuel — fuel derived from renewable resources as an alternativeto fossil fuels — and as a substitute for the new dietary baddy trans fats,which are commonly used in processed food.
Palm oil used to be shunned because it is a saturated fat, but trans fats arenow believed to be much more harmful and last year the US market for Malaysianpalm oil grew by 65 percent as consumers began making the switch.
Meanwhile, European nations in particular are fuelling big demand for biofuel,which is derived from natural oils and plants and added to ordinary diesel, andis seen as an important tool for reducing dependence on fossil fuels.
Last year Malaysian exports of palm oil, already the world’s largest, grew toa record 31.81 billion ringgit (9.05 billion dollars), five percent up on thelast high set in 2004.
Biodiesel production is expected to double this year.
Indonesia is also in an aggressive mood, aiming to overtake Malaysia as theworld’s largest producer of palm oil by 2008 by expanding the area underplantation to meet the demand for biofuel raw materials.
Environmentalists are alarmed by the new mood, and say that the benefits interms of health and alternative energy will not outweigh the damage wreaked by adramatic expansion of palm oil planting.
“It’s a huge push to have a monoculture crop replace biodiverserainforest and indigenous people. Palm oil is just a quick fix for biofuel,”said Meena Raman from Friends of the Earth Malaysia.
“It’s being bandied around with all the companies getting excited aboutexpanding palm oil, but from an environmental standpoint they’ve alreadydevastated so much. Species extinction is very clear,” she said.
Friends of the Earth in 2005 called for a boycott of palm oil products in areport dubbed the “Oil for Ape Scandal,” on shrinking orangutanhabitat in Indonesia’s Sumatra island, and Borneo island which is split betweenIndonesia and Malaysia.
“If forest destruction continues at the same scale and speed, theorangutan will be lost within 12 years. The countdown to extinction has begun,”it said.
Malaysia has denied the claims, saying that no forests are cleared forplantations any more, and that the allegations are an attempt by industrycompetitors in the developed world to undermine the sector.
— Forest clearing, wildlife extinction: “just like the Europeans”–
“We owe no apology to anyone to use our forests for our own use. Justlike the Europeans who used up all their forests for their own use,” EnergyMinister Lim Keng Yaik said last year.
In Indonesia, however, land clearing is rampant and last month Greenpeacewarned that EuropeanUnion demand for bio-fuel could threaten Indonesia’s remainingforests as the government approves new palm oil plantations.
Chinese-funded plans for a vast new plantation in Indonesia’s Kalimantanwhich would see the forest stripped from a 1.8 million-hectare (4.5 million-acre)site — half the size of the Netherlands — have raised particular alarm.
Apart from destroying forests where new species are still being discovered atthe rate of three a month, burning to clear land for palm oil poses a majorhazard because the dense smoke wafts right across the region.
In 1997-98 the haze choked large parts of Southeast Asia, costing anestimated 9.0 billion dollars by disrupting air travel and other businessactivities, and triggering a health crisis that rears its head annually.
In the face of illegal and unplanned development worldwide, in 2003 theinternational Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established todefine and promote sustainable production.
“We need to show that environmental responsibility is not out of syncwith making money. There will always be cowboys out there, but hopefully we canbring them,” said RSPO Secretary-General Andrew Ng.
Driving north from Kuala Lumpur there is rarely a break in the vast swathesof oil palms that line the roads throughout the three-hour drive from thecapital to United Plantations, reputedly one of the best run in the country.
“At the end of the day it’s a very sustainable crop,” saidcommercial director Martin Bek-Nielsen, whose father Borge was a Danishentrepreneur who died in 2005 after spending a lifetime nurturing one ofMalaysia’s key industries.
“Of course there’s black sheep out there who shouldn’t be in thebusiness. We can’t fight against consumers in Europe who see pictures of burntout orangutans,” he told AFP.
Outside, endless neat rows of palm trees shade the mostly Indian, Bangladeshiand Indonesian workers as they go about the tough work of cutting away the palmfronds and harvesting the 40-50 kilogram (88-110 pound) fruits that look likeprehistoric bunches of grapes.
United’s workers are well paid, housed and unionised. They have professionalmedical care and their children are schooled, but civil society groups say thisis exceptional and that elsewhere long working hours, unsafe conditions and lowpay are common.
With European companies already beginning to abandon bio-diesel plantsbecause of environmental concerns, Bek-Nielsen is bent on changing perceptionsof his industry.
“If we don’t get our act together this bad perception is going to growand grow. If European companies can’t buy environmentally sustainable palm oilthey won’t buy any at all,” he said.