Volunteer Mariam: What comes to mind when you think of palm oil?

30th August 2018

What comes to mind when you think of palm oil? Is it that palm oil is a resource used in 50% of all consumer goods? Or that the Malaysian economy, amongst several others, has become heavily invested it? Or that palm oil is inherently evil? It is an issue that feels as distant as the places that predominantly produce it for many. But, like most controversies, it is never that simple.

By 2050, worldwide demand for palm oil is expected to double to 240 million tonnes. An expansion which would come at the expense of tropical rainforest and endanger biodiversity around the world. Did you know that the cultivation of palm oil renders the land it is grown on useless for 25 years after the final crops are harvested? This means palm oil land cannot be replanted with trees to rehabilitate and reforest areas for 25 years.

The concern to stabilise this growth lies closer to home for Danum Valley Conservation Area’s Development and Maintenance Officer Nelky Imbaran. He believes creating a sustainable balance between farming palm oil and conserving land relies on people understanding that the industry promotes the country’s economic activity. The total palm oil plantation labour pool was estimated at just under 500,000 in 2012 which accounts for 10% of Malaysia’s total GDP. This number is only increasing meaning employment and economy would be greatly impacted if there was a sudden reduction in palm oil production.

Palm oil is one of Kampung Mempakad’s main sources of income.

Nelky explains that palm oil is the biggest source of income in his village. He argues that, sometimes, farming palm oil is the only way of earning an income for communities. Sources of income for rural communities is very much dependent on their location. In agreeance, Danum Valley Conservation Area-based PHD student Cindy Cosset acknowledges that the palm oil industry acts as a catalyst to tackle poverty and improve the economy of developing countries. She suggests a potential solution to the current imbalance of economy over environment is ensuring palm oil farming methods are sustainable.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, among other sustainable palm oil initiatives, works to enforce the certification of manufacturers to ensure fair treatment of workers and greater protection of the environment. They do this by providing a set of core criteria that companies must adhere to. Currently, however, only 35% of palm growers are certified members, while the other 65% can pay to be members without meeting the set criteria.

Around the globe, palm oil is in a large number of the products and foods that we love. We often don’t understand or know about the impact of our consumption of the oil. Raleigh Volunteer Manager, Christian Panter, expressed his guilt after witnessing first-hand the aftermath of palm oil extraction in Sabah. He described the miles and miles of levelled forest on his way to the Raleigh project in Danum Valley Conservation Area. He further explained how unhealthy it felt having such a diverse place rich with flora and fauna right next to an area where most of the endemic species in the primary rainforest would be unable to live.

The risk of pesticide contamination is often an issue which is unthought of with having palm oil on the door step of untouched primary rainforest. Contamination from palm oil run off can limit safe water sources for residents downstream as well as killing river life. Nature guide of 22 years, Hanry Daud, calls for the need to keep such areas protected by making more of an effort to keep palm oil farming contained. The slow growing nature of the rainforest itself demands caution, and if greater care isn’t taken, Hanry believes the damage will be irreversible.

Regardless of your stance on palm oil, one cannot deny both the positive and negative aspects of its production for the economy, environment and global trade. The topic of palm oil is both controversial and complex, and one that requires research. It seems palm oil isn’t an inherent evil however but appears to not be currently sustainable. It would seem promoting awareness of the debate from all angles would equip consumers with a greater understanding of what is happening on the ground, so they can make informed decisions.

Words by volunteer Mariam.

Edited by Communications Officer Rebecca Raab.

Photographs by Photographer Daniel Buttifant.

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