Tag Archives: Malaysia

Opposing Development? Development narratives of oil palm production in Sarawak, Malaysia

By Anna Frohn Pedersen, Víctor Suarez Villanueva, Milja Fenger, Simone Klee, Lærke Marie Lund Pedersen, Thilde Bech Bruun, Astrid Oberborbeck Andersen, and Kelvin Egay 

(c) Anna Frohn Pedersen

(c) Anna Frohn Pedersen

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. 

books_icon 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

60-world2 Afrizal 2009 The trouble with oil palm Inside Indonesia 98 Dec 2009

60-world2 Park J 2015 Is Malaysia’s palm oil worth the cost? BBC News online 4 August 2015

60-world2 The Guardian 2014 From rainforest to your cupboard: the real story of palm oil – interactive 10 November 2014

60-world2 The Guardian 2016 The palm oil debate 

60-world2 WWF Which everyday products contain palm oil? 

 

Climate change must always be viewed from somewhere

By Rory Padfield, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, and Kate Manzo, University of Newcastle

A palm oil plantation (left) borders a degraded peat forest swamp in South Selangor, Peninsular Malaysia. Source: (c) Rory Padfield.

A palm oil plantation (left) borders a degraded peat forest swamp in South Selangor, Peninsular Malaysia. Source: (c) Rory Padfield.

In March 2016 two newspapers on opposites sides of the world covered stories on climate change but with contrasting perspectives. The UK’s Daily Mail painted a picture of impending doom and global catastrophe as climate change is predicted to cause the death of half a million people in 2050 due to food shortages. Regions most vulnerable to climate change induced starvation were reported to be in Asia and the Pacific, although the problem will also affect some richer countries. Conversely, a national newspaper from Malaysia – a country in Southeast Asia at risk from ‘impacts to food production from climate change’ as reported in the Daily Mail – presented both concern at the expected impacts of climate change but also the various opportunities in store. The article in the New Straits Times (‘Adapting to climate change’, March 14, 2016) argued that climate change mitigation and adaption presents an opportunity to invest more substantially in research and development in fields such as biotechnology. Reflecting on the different and at times polarized geographical representations of this important environmental issues, Professor Mike Hulme, from King’s College London, observes: “Climate, and hence climate change, must always be viewed from somewhere”.

Recognising the importance of situated knowledge and cultural politics in framing climate change media narratives, our research, published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, examines representations of climate change in Malaysian media. We investigate the ways in which climate change is framed in five English-language media sources in Malaysia over a three year period, 2009 – 2011. We were interested in the salience of a North–South perspective on climate change in Malaysia and the extent to which the problems of climate change have been reframed as an opportunity for particular modes of development.

The results of our study were interesting on a number of levels. First of all we found that climate change is being framed not only as an environmental issue of concern for society but as a positive opportunity, particularly for neoliberal market forces. Here, Malaysia’s emerging ‘green growth’ policy agenda is shown to be supported by the expectation for greater investment in environmental sectors following climate change mitigation and adaption policies. We found evidence that similar trends exist in other Asian countries, such as India, China and South Korea.

Second,we show that climate change represents an opportunity for geopolitical actors interested in restructuring the international political economy along lines reminiscent of the new international economic order (NIEO) demands of the 1970s. Key themes emergent from this part of the analysis were ‘climate capitalism’ and ‘green nationalism’. Palm oil – one of the most important commodities to national economic development in Malaysia – was illustrative of the interaction of these themes. The Malaysian media was shown to strongly defend the position of palm oil in the global commodities market against perceived injustices and unfairness, such as trade barriers linked to climate policy.

Finally, our analysis brought together the frames of opportunity and responsibility in a frame referred to as a structuralist model of green development. Here, we argued that a hybridisation of different development models (and not just of climate change frames) is at work in Malaysia which support opportunities for so-called ‘green business’, responsibilities for various actors and also emphasizes a key role for the developmental state – in formulating policy, facilitating investment, accessing finance, and lobbying for changes in international relations of power.

For Malaysia, therefore, climate change policy action has not just stimulated a form of internal ‘ecological modernisation’ but it has presented an opportunity to press historic demands for changes in the international political economy.

About the authors: Rory Padfield is a Senior Lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. Kate Manzo is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle. 

60-world2 Ibrahim A 2016 Adapting to climate change New Straits Times Online 14 March 2016

books_icon Manzo, K. and Padfield, R. (2016), Palm oil not polar bears: climate change and development in Malaysian media. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12129

60-world2 Swan R 2016 Climate change ‘will kill half a million people’ by 2050: global warming will ruin crops leading to disease and malnutrition Daily Mail online 2 March 2016

Palm oil production: problems and future sustainability

By Joseph J. Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK

Palm oil, which is a type of vegetable oil that comes from the oil palm tree Elaeis guineensis, is big business! I challenge you to look in your home and fail to find a foodstuff, cleaning product, or toiletry product that contains it (see this guide to products containing palm oil). It has attracted much attention from environmental campaigners for several years, with a particularly high-profile set of protests against Unilever back in 2008, and there has been much publicity about its negative environmental impacts for some time (e.g. a report from the Independent in 2009). The story continues to reoccur in the popular press, with The Guardian recently reporting on a Greenpeace report (published March 3rd 2016) that claims 13 big brands (out of 14) cannot guarantee that the palm oil in their products is not contributing towards deforestation. The companies reviewed were: Colgate-Palmolive, Danone, Ferrero, General Mills, Ikea, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez, Nestle, Orkla, PepsiCo, P & G and Unilever. Ferrero was the exception as it ‘purchases palm oil volumes that are both fully traceable to plantation level and fully RSPO Segregated’.

Palm oil has penetrated global markets (including food, toiletries, cleaning products, and biofuel) because it is efficient (in terms of the amount of land required), versatile, and relatively cheap compared to other vegetable oils. It has been described as a ‘golden crop’, lifting many poor farmers from poverty, but it continues to cause major environmental problems, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which are two of the main producers (BBC, 2015). Deforestation creates space for the palm oil plantations and this directly threatens ‘charismatic’ species (e.g. orangutans, rhinos, tigers, elephants), their associated ecosystems, and the many less charismatic species therein (WWF).

There are currently a number of organisations and initiatives that are trying to increase the sustainability of palm oil production, to ensure that this product is profitable now, and in the future, without devastating the natural environment. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which came into operation in 2004, aims to put the global palm oil supply chain on a sustainable path. Currently, 21% of palm oil is RSPO certified globally. The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), meanwhile, aims to support the RSPO by implementing existing standards and building upon these through ‘creative innovations’ and local, corporate (e.g. Danone, Ferrero), and NGO (e.g. WWF, Greenpeace, Orangutan Land Trust) partnerships. POIG recently released an updated set of criteria (published March 2016). Therefore, whilst there is clearly still some distance to go beyond this figure of 21%, progress is very much being made. Consumer awareness is also vital towards these efforts.

District Kunak, Sabah: A oilpalm plantation along the Malaysia Federal Route 13 with different stadiums of oil palm growing.

District Kunak, Sabah: A oilpalm plantation along the Malaysia Federal Route 13 with different stadiums of oil palm growing. © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0. Available at: (accessed 14th Mar 2016).

Palm oil production often occurs at a local scale. A recent article in The Geographical Journal reported on the diversity of small-scale oil palm cultivation in the Malaysian part of Borneo (Soda et al., 2015). The article provides a case study of SJ Village in the Bintulu District in Sarawak and considers land-use changes from 2004 to 2013 using land-use maps derived from high-resolution satellite data. The oil palm trees grown here are irregularly dispersed and not in large plantations, which is quite a contrast to the sources of much palm oil. The authors identify that this method of harvesting palm oil may seem inefficient and irrational compared to plantations, but show why it is in fact very sensible. This is because only 26.9% (14% cultivated by the local villagers and the rest by outsiders) of the land in this area in 2013 was found to be used for oil palm, which means that the area’s economy is relatively resilient to declines in palm oil prices. The rest of the land area consisted of: young secondary forest (38.3%), old secondary and primary forest (29.1%), and rubber (0.14%), while the remainder (5.63%) was not visible because of cloud cover. The villagers regard old secondary forest and lands with poor access as ‘backup space’ for planting rubber trees and rice if the price of palm oil were to fall.

However, the authors also discuss potential future land conflicts within this complex system of multiple actors, whereby villagers ‘may have no option but to plant oil palms to secure their land’ if plantations continue to expand in the area. This could impact the mosaicked spatial pattern that currently dominates this village landscape and potentially threaten forests (primary and secondary) and future livelihoods. Outsiders also have an increasing influence in the area, including farmers from other villages (they marry into the community) and urban Chinese who lease rural lands. This can take some control away from the local people and threaten the economic security and rural subsistence that they have developed over many years. Maintaining the diverse landscape of mosaicked oil palm trees and forest requires ‘balanced relationships’ among the diverse set of stakeholders.

The importance of local socio-economic resilience and sustainability cannot be overstressed: maintaining a spatially diverse landscape is regarded as superior to palm oil plantations by being ecologically, economically, and socially more sustainable. Hopefully such sustainability can be developed alongside conservation objectives by some of the organisations mentioned above, even where large companies and outsiders encroach on local villages. Additionally, landscape diversity should be encouraged in existing plantations, to the advantage of the local communities and wildlife.

References

60-world2 Batty, D. 2008 Unilever targeted in oran-utan protest The Guardian

60-world2 Greenpeace 2016 Cutting deforestation out of palm oil: company scorecard 

60-world2 Hickman, M. 2009 The guilty secrets of pail oil: are you unwittingly contributing to the devastation of the rain forests? Independent

60-world2 Lamb, K. 2016 Leading brands unsure if pal oil in products comes from rainforest land The Guardian 

books_icon Soda, R., Kato, Y. and Hon, J. 2015 The diversity of small-scale oil palm cultivation in Sarawak, Malaysia. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12152.

60-world2 WWF  Which everyday products contain palm oil?