Borneo

Palm oil, the big debate

15th December 2017

I recently spent some time with Alpha 1 working on their water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) project in a village outside of Kota Marudu called Kampung Buruni.

Throughout the expedition, VMs run various Active Citizenship sessions designed to enable volunteers to develop their awareness of the issues surrounding our local environment in Sabah, and also those affecting the wider world. Covering a series of different topics, volunteers are encouraged to engage, debate and learn from each other, to become active citizens when they return home.

Florence and Farra explaining the session.
Florence and Farra explaining the session

Along with my fellow VM, Farra, we ran a session on palm oil. Often considered a contentious subject in Borneo, venturers tend to believe that palm oil is an evil that causes unnecessary logging of the rainforest, forces the extinction of endangered species and has a generally negative effect on the environment.

We decided to host the session in Jasli’s palm oil plantation. He is a key member of the WASH project and has been instrumental in helping us to construct the tandas’ and motivating the rest of the village to work on the dam.

Jasli and Farra
Jasli and Farra

The session took place under one of the palm trees in the plantation. The plan was to allow for an open debate, present some facts and discuss with Jasli what he understands to be the benefits of palm oil.

Palm oil is used in over 50% of all consumer goods from cosmetics and packed food to detergents and biofuels. Global production of palm oil has doubled over the last decade and worldwide demand for palm oil is expected to double by 2050 to 240 million tonnes.

The first part of the session was to read statements to the group and let them decide whether they are ‘for’ or ‘against’ the argument relating to farming palm oil in Sabah. This led to some interesting comments from the venturers. Two statements that were particularly surprising: ‘palm oil production is extremely efficient, it generates nearly 10 times more energy than is required for refining’ and ‘palm oil has an extremely high yield. Producing up to 6 tonnes per hectare. 10 times higher than Rapeseed.’

Alpha 1 planning their debate
Alpha 1 planning their debate

Most members of the group found this a positive and somewhat surprising set of statements as they had assumed that palm oil was intrinsically bad.

Following this exercise, we set the venturers the task of a debate. They were villagers deciding whether to sell their land for palm oil farming in return for money and the construction of a school. During the discussion, the groups discussed the environmental, economic and social benefits and impacts of palm oil to the community.

For: ‘Palm oil helps develop the infrastructure of smaller communities with little access to amenities.’ Sarah

Against: ‘The palm oil industry sends money straight to Peninsular Malaysia rather than where people need it the most in Sabah.’ Eleanor

Joep writing down ideas
Joep writing down ideas

At the end of the session, the venturers asked Jasli a range of questions about his palm plantation. He has been farming for 20 years and employs 10 people on the land. He believes that it is positive, creating an income for not only himself but also the community members who work for him.

I thoroughly enjoyed the session and to aid in myth-busting, debating and learning more about this hotly debated topic. This action citizenship session brought the volunteers together to discuss Palm Oil, engaged the group into thinking about it from a different view point.

Words and photos by Florence.

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