Clouds of toxic haze are drifting across the Malaysian peninsula once again, in the worst uncontrolled burnoff since 2015. Like the Amazon, these smog-belching fires are deliberately lit for agricultural purposes. In this part of the world the main culprits are the palm oil and pulp and paper industries, as slash-and-burn methods are the quickest and cheapest way to clear land to make way for plantations.
We are often asked — how can we prevent this from happening again? And if these fires are being deliberately lit for economic purposes, who are we to tell a developing country not to lift its rural population out of poverty?
Well, there are many ways we can stop these seasonal fires from creating toxic haze, threatening the health of millions, destroying rainforests and vital carbon stocks in years to come. But it is largely a matter of listening to the people on the ground. Palm oil smallholders are not villains, and not everyone wants to lose their land to plantations in order to get rich quick. You’ll find a diversity of views across Malaysia and Indonesia: it is not a zero sum game of poverty versus climate activism.
Encourage the move away from conflict palm oil
When the EU committed to massively reducing its use of palm oil for biofuels, the price of palm oil dropped. This relatively small commitment sent a shockwave through the industry, resulting in backlash from the pro-palm oil lobby. Malaysia’s top supermarket went so far as to ban palm oil free labelled products, with the Indonesian Drug and Food agency quickly following suit.
The EU ban caused a stink, and made people think twice about the future of palm oil in an increasingly environmentally conscious world.
Oil palm trees stop producing fruit after roughly 25 years, after which landowners and farmers need to decide whether they replant and recommit for another 25 years. In Malaysia, scores of plantations are on the verge of expiry, at the tail end of government planting programs. It is a pretty big gamble to back a pariah commodity for another quarter century in a volatile market, especially when the plants don’t start producing for 3-5 years …
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The Borneo Project