By Anna Frohn Pedersen, Víctor Suarez Villanueva, Milja Fenger, Simone Klee, Lærke Marie Lund Pedersen, Thilde Bech Bruun, Astrid Oberborbeck Andersen, and Kelvin Egay
What is ‘development’? While this term is frequently used in various contexts, we rarely take a step back and look at the meaning of the word. Our reason for posing this question begins in a small Iban village in Sarawak, Malaysia. We went to the village to study oil palm production and its effects on the local community. However, when we asked the villagers about their newly established oil palm plantation, their replies most often involved the word ‘development’. The connection between oil palm production and ‘development’ struck us. When we asked the leader of the village about his reasons for engaging in production of oil palm, he explained:
“We must change our mentality, our style of life; if you just keep quiet you never see development. Then people get poorer and poorer.”
To him, the establishment of the oil palm plantation was “when the development came.”
Globally speaking, palm oil is the most used edible oil and can be found in many industrial baking goods, cosmetics, and a wide array of products we use in our daily life (see WWF guide to products containing palm oil and The Guardian for examples). In Malaysia, many communities engage in oil palm production in order to earn money from land that was otherwise seen as ‘idle’ or ‘empty’, and be part of what the Malaysian government praises as the country’s ‘development’. Yet, a problem arises when tropical forests are swiped to cultivate this panacea for smallholders. This is not only a source of environmental concerns but it has also become a problem for several local communities, causing internal conflicts (for similar perspectives from neighbouring Indonesia, read this news story from Inside Indonesia).
When leaders of the Iban village we visited characterised the decision to engage in large scale oil palm production as a way to ‘bring development’ to the village, other villagers described the decision-making process as secretive and suspicious. As we discuss in our research paper, recently published in The Geographical Journal, they felt excluded from the process and did not approve of the oil palm scheme that was chosen. Moreover, they feared that the oil palm scheme would only accentuate the inequality of the village. As some villagers expressed it: “The rich are getting richer, the poor, poorer”.
Based on these concerns, the opposing villagers formed a group and initiated a court case against the oil palm company. This resulted in two differentiated groups within the village: a group for the oil palm scheme, and a group against it.
Politics were deeply embedded in the conflict. The pro-group was led by a government leader using the argument that the oil palm plantation would bring ‘development’and get farmers out of poverty. On the other hand, the opposing group was being supported, legally and economically, by the national opposition party, even with the risk of being branded as ‘anti-development’ for disagreeing with the governmental development narrative. In this way, the oil palm plantation caused the Iban village to become a political battlefield, where national politics became of local concern and divided the community. Even within families, opposing opinions emerged and family ties were challenged — in some cases broken.
The story of this Iban community shows that in order to understand the impacts of development narratives, we have to look closely at how these are replicated and enacted in local communities. When we explore the issues related to oil palm, we must avoid reducing these to merely a question of right vs. wrong, good people vs. bad people, development vs. anti-development. These categories rarely reflect the complicated ways in which oil palm production influences the concerns and everyday lives of the affected communities. Instead, this story leads us to question how we define development in relation to oil palm, and what the consequences of this might be — locally as well as globally.
About the authors: Astrid Oberborbeck Anderson is a postdoctoral researcher within the Department of Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen; Thilde Bech Bruun is an Associate Professor within the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management at the University of Copenhagen; Kelvin Egay is a Senior Lecturer within Faculty of Social Sciences at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak; Milja Fenger is a MPhil candidate in Zoology at the University of Cambrige; Simone Klee is a Sociology Student at the University of Copenhagen; Anna Frohn Pederson is an Anthropology Student at the University of Copenhagen; Lærke Marie Lund Pedersen is based at the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, University of Copenhagen; Víctor Suárez Villanueva is a Research Assistant within the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Copenhagen.
Andersen, A. O., Bruun, T. B., Egay, K., Fenger, M., Klee, S., Pedersen, A. F., Pedersen, L. M. L. and Suárez Villanueva, V. 2016 Negotiating development narratives within large-scale oil palm projects on village lands in Sarawak, Malaysia. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12181
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Park J 2015 Is Malaysia’s palm oil worth the cost? BBC News online 4 August 2015
The Guardian 2014 From rainforest to your cupboard: the real story of palm oil – interactive 10 November 2014
The Guardian 2016 The palm oil debate