Tuesday 11 June 2019
“When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last stream poisoned, you will realise that you cannot eat money.” Photo: Getty Images

The anti-palm oil campaign, as with any form of activism, tugs at your heartstrings and guilt-trips you into believing that your personal consumption alone is enough to end “dirty palm oil”. We see the same tactic used to end consumption of single-use plastics (“Buy metal straws and you will save the turtles”). A similar narrative is used to stop people from shopping at Nike (“Don’t buy Nike because they employ children in Third World countries”). While making an effort to consume more sustainably and responsibly is commendable, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this is going to change anything.

Michael Maniates, Professor of Social Sciences at Yale University, writes about the contemporary response to environmental problems in his article Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World? He writes that it sees them as the product of individual shortcomings and that therefore, “consumption, consumerism, power and responsibility can be resolved neatly and cleanly through enlightened, uncoordinated consumer choice”. This individualisation of responsibility is a key principle of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism gained popularity in the 1980s in the US under Reagan and Thatcher in the UK. In this era, globalisation, which began during colonial times, took off rapidly through policies supporting economic liberalisation, privatisation, free trade, etc. The most important policy, however, was the minimisation of the state and the corresponding individualisation of responsibility. But is it really down to us, individual consumers, to save the trees?

First, let’s look at why we should care about trees in the first place. But instead of a tree in your back garden, we are talking about vast acres of primary rainforest that are often called “the lungs of the Earth”. Deforestation in Southeast Asia is a major problem that has a variety of negative impacts:


Though Malaysia and Indonesia produce over 80% of the world’s palm oil, the oil palm plant (Elaeis guineensis) is, in fact, native to West Africa and the first few seeds were imported into Southeast Asia by British and Dutch colonials. This species grows only 10 degrees north and south of the Equator, which also happen to be the most biodiverse regions in the world: Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Colombia, Nigeria, Ecuador and Guatemala which are the top producing nations. The threat to biodiversity goes way beyond orangutans.

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A baby Sumatran elephant playing with a mahout from the Trumon Conservation Response Unit at the Leuser Ecosystem wildlife reservation area in South Aceh district. Photo: AFP

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that at least 193 species are critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable with deforestation linked to palm oil, one of their main threats. Biodiversity is important in the context of agriculture (as opposed to human genetics) because diversity of species is essential to food production. Hence the Native American wisdom: “When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last stream poisoned, you will realise that you cannot eat money.”

Social impact.

The rapid expansion of oil palm in Malaysia and Indonesia is a serious threat to indigenous peoples who live in areas targeted by plantations. In a lot of cases, the customary rights of these peoples are either not recognised by governments or are undermined by conflicting laws.

Climate change.

Deforestation is a key contributor to climate change. Forests are “carbon sinks” or areas of natural environment that absorb carbon dioxide and convert it into oxygen. 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions are directly caused by deforestation. But deforestation isn’t just a Malaysian or an Indonesian issue, nor is it just a palm oil issue. It’s a global issue implicating multiple industries, stakeholders, companies and supply chains.

Tropical forests account for about 7% of the globe. Not only do tropical forests house nearly half the world’s biodiversity, they also provide “economic goods” (food, timber, etc) and provide ecosystem services at every scale. Up to 50% of the world’s tropical forests have been cleared. Commercial agriculture accounts for half of this deforestation globally.

The largest regions of tropical forest are the Amazon Basin, the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia. For much of the recent past, deforestation rates were highest not in Malaysia and Indonesia as some may lead you to think, but in the Amazon Basin. In 2017, tree cover loss in Brazil was estimated to be 4.5 million hectares and was higher than any other country in the world. In fact, it is higher than the next four countries combined. Of course, there’s much more land and forest in Brazil in the first place, but the fact still stands that deforestation rates in Brazil have been consistently high. The World Resources Institute estimates that the tree cover loss in Brazil was the second-highest it’s ever been in 2017, after a huge spike in 2016.

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Oil palm plantations in northeastern Borneo, state of Sabah, Malaysia. Recently planted oil palms can be seen in the bright green grassy areas and a tiny bit of natural rainforest still struggles for survival farther away.

Just four commodities are responsible for this – cattle (beef and leather), soy, palm and timber have the highest impacts on tropical forests and associated ecosystem services. The value chains of each commodity are extremely complex; each involves multiple actors and a variety of industrial and consumer end products. This is one of the reasons why deforestation is so difficult to tackle.

This article is an excerpt from UNRESERVED’s June 2019 issue from the article DEFORESTATION IN SOUTHEAST ASIA.

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