The ubiquitous oil palms

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.

Oil palms lining the expressways

Oil palms lining the expressways

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.

Moving a mountain.

Moving a mountain.

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.


Photo from my time in Malaysia with Rimba more than 4 years ago now.

Find out more about:
Oil palms and their cost -WWF

About Jocelyne Sze

I'm a Nature-lover, aspiring conservationist, and wannabe traveller in search of outdoor adventure.
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2 Responses to The ubiquitous oil palms

  1. connorwalsh says:

    I agree, legislation really can help people change their purchasing behaviour.
    Over the summer I gave an orangutan talk four days a week at British zoo. It was basically a palm oil talk with the ultimate props – a pair of mum and baby orangutans. Visitors regularly committed to either not using palm oil products, or to using sustainable palm oil. And the main reason why I think some of them really will do so is because of recent EU legislation that quires food using palm oil to have the words ‘palm oil’ on the packaging. Celebrating how easy it is for people now compared to six months ago makes them open to novel behaviour of their own in a novel situation (I reckon…).
    Later in the season I was able to talk about how this isn’t a minority thing: supermarkets making their own brand products certified or palm oil-free – ‘even Tesco are on board, so you know it must be a thing’ would raise a laugh or grimace, and gave a balance of gentle social pressure without seeming extremist. And then telling them how many families at that talk earlier that week had told me they were going to change their shopping (‘no one’s going to roll their eyes at you’).

    Legislation, campaigning, social expectations, and the behaviour of mother and young orangutans – all somewhat inter-related but still separate enough to reach different social and economic groups.

    I loved doing that talk and could go on about it all day, but I should keep it concise so I’ll leave it there!

    • Jocelyne Sze says:

      Hey Connor, haha just saw this comment! Thanks for your insights, and yeah those are great stories. I’d really like to believe that people, when provided with information, will behave and act congruently rather than think ‘oh I’m just one person, how much impact can I have’ (:

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