I’ve just got back from a road trip up to Malaysia with my family, and the one thing that struck me throughout the whole drive up and down was the oil palm plantations. Almost everywhere. Oil palm plantations are brought into the forefront of everyone’s mind thanks to the haze that’s currently smothering our region, albeit regarding a different country.
According to FAO Statistics, Malaysia had 4,550,000 ha of oil palm plantations in 2013, compared to 3,260,000 ha in 2003 (not entirely sure how much of it is on East or Peninsula Malaysia). I found it really sad to look out of the window, and instead of seeing tropical forest with its emergent layers, canopy trees, liyanas and the like, it is a sea of homogenous oil palms.
We also went up to Ipoh (for the food, since the haze deterred us from doing a short hike in Cameron Highlands), and the bare mountains were equally depressing. Not entirely sure what was going on, but it was probably being quarried. It reminded me of the limestone hills one of my Cambridge professors (Dr. Richard Preece) told me about, which was home to endemic snails but were being lost due to quarrying and cement production.
Though naming one of the snails (Charopa lafargei) after one of the companies did apparently help save the species from extinction. The snails are one of those tiny things that you don’t see, and I find it ironic how we humans tend not to notice to small and the tiny, yet they’re the ones that we ought to care about. Because our world is run by bacteria, microorganisms, and the little critters that we don’t give any thought about – except in trying to kill them. Even with the current haze that’s occurring because people/corporations in Indonesia (Sumatra and Kalimantan mainly) are burning the forest to clear the land for oil palm plantations, it’s not so much the lack of visibility that ought to concern us most, but the tiny particles in the air that’s collecting in our lungs.
As many of my friends have been reiterating on social media, we’re not entirely helpless about the haze despite its transboundary nature. There’s a campaign for sustainable palm oil to get corporations on board and push for haze-free, sustainably sourced palm oil in consumer products. Poignantly called We Breathe What We Buy, the petition could still do with more supporters (so please do add your name).
Apart from petition, we can also actively choose products that only contain Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). Zoos Victoria has a wonderful website that easily shows us what common supermarket products contain CSPO and are labelled as such (though they might be Australia specific). However, as strongly as I feel about the importance of education and outreach, I have come to realise that knowledge alone is insufficient. Too often, ‘perfect information’ still fails to lead to a rational decision, in contrast to what I was taught in JC economics. People are still unlikely to make the ‘right’ choices even when they know the consequence, unless it’s also convenient. Better policies, legislation and the corresponding infrastructure are I think, what we really need to make conservation effective.