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Palm Oil


Glenn Hurowitz has an important piece at Think Progress noting that Obama’s decision on whether palm oil should be included in the Renewable Fuel Standard will be the most important decision he makes on climate change this year. He’s probably right and I absolutely oppose the idea of palm oil as renewable fuel. Basically, Malaysia and Indonesia have decided to chop down their entire remaining rain forest to convert to palm oil plantations. We frequently hear about Latin American rainforest being lost for cattle ranches and this is the Asian version. Not only does this make palm oil dirty because of the burning of the rainforests, but you also have the destruction of plant and animal species and their replacement with monocultures. Plus the palm oil industry is a corrupt and immoral as petroleum could ever dream:

Industry giant Wilmar, which has been caught on film cutting down forests in orangutan habitat and expelling indigenous people from their lands, and was cut off from World Bank funding for its abuses, has hired a raft of DC lobbyists in its attempt to pressure the White House to distort the science. The industry’s effort has been boosted by $7.7 million that the Malaysian government authorized last year to spend on foreign palm oil “public relations” work, intended to spread the false idea that palm oil is a clean source of energy. This flood of foreign cash may explain why right wing “think tanks” like the Heritage Foundation are suddenly so interested in forcing American motorists to use palm oil grown in Indonesia under the Renewable Fuels Standard – a standard they have virulently opposed for other biofuels but have suddenly embraced for palm oil. Hmm.

In 2006, I was in Malaysia for a couple of weeks. While I love Malaysia, I found the palm oil plantations incredibly depressing. Riding buses through what was, until a few years before, lush rainforest but was now palm oil plantations really brought home the environmental transformation of agricultural globalization. There’s a lot of money to be made in palm oil; more importantly for Malaysia, that money is concentrated among the elite class. They could diversify into tourism, go the Costa Rica route, but that would neither fulfill the developmentalist dreams of the Malaysian elite nor line their pockets.

Palm oil as a renewable fuel doesn’t make sense from a standpoint of sustainability or environmental stewardship. It does make sense from the standpoint of massive corruption and the concentration of power in the developing world in the hands of a very few local elites and international investors. President Obama will choose where the United States stands on this question.

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  • Lee

    Is there a local enviromental movement in Malaysia and Indonesia? This is a serious question. Logically, there should be Malaysians and Indonesians who care about the environment but it often seems that foreigners, particular from North America and Europe, care more about the rain forests than the citizens of those countries.

    Environmental policy success probably won’t occur until enough Malaysians and Indonesians care about them. The Malaysian and Indonesian government seem to have the same approach to development that the American government did have WWII, build, build, and build. They seem to have had this approach since independence from the UK and the Netherlands respectively.

    From what I’ve read, Malaysia and Indonesia also seem to have car-focused transportation policies, practically neglecting or actively destroying the railways and tramways built during the colonial period. Java’s formerly very dense rail network is shell, which makes no sense considering the population density on Java.

    • There are definitely local environmental movements in those countries. Here’s a link to Malaysians opposing a dam in Borneo.


      The problem of course is that social movements have limited ability to affect power in a nation like Malaysia, with its corruption, centralization of power, and relative poverty.

      • swearyanthony

        The local govt there isn’t awfully friendly to social activism, either. Something of a beat heads first, engage in civic dialogue second approach.

        They’re quite keen to splash money around with friendly linked companies with an understanding that allies will get jobs and other forms of nice things.

        Of course, this is in no way, shape or form corruption, and only a fool (or a Frenchman) would suggest otherwise.

      • firefall

        It’s important to remember in this context, that neither country is actually a democracy, but instead a fairly wide oligopoly – coincidentally, the same form of government that the USA is gradually drifting towards.

        • Right–and if you look at the other nations that have seen big spikes in palm oil plantations–Colombia and Congo–you see that palm oil tends to follow oligopoly and dictatorship. I wonder if Burma won’t be next, once it opens up a little to foreign investment.

  • shah8

    As these things go, Malaysia is not a poor country, nor is it particularly unsophisticated. Any analysis based on that should spur some some-checking. Palm oil isn’t nearly as big a problem as rubber in Yunnan, exotic wood logging in Myannmar or Indonesia. This is not to say, however, that I favor adding it.

    The real problem are subsidies, not so much that they encourage the use of the item, which can be bad, but because they encourage land speculation and the corruption that goes along with it. Palm oil is a problem in Indonesia mostly because it’s a facade for irresponsible logging. It’s probably eating away at whatever woodland reserves that was saved from rubber plantations in Malaysia. It’s the same deal with fracking in the US. The actual money made from the energy harvested is non-economic, but the speculation and ability to mine outside of economic/environmental restraints makes this profitable for a few. Just.a.pretext.

    So when we talk about energy, it has to be with some kind of acknowledgement that it’s not really easy to make energy, Saudi oilfields excepting (and I suppose a Saudi ARAMCO engineer just scoffed). Plantations take work, care, harvest labor, pesticides, you name it. Corrupt, lazy, people don’t want to run palm oil plantations, all right? They want a reason to sell valuable logging and mineral rights that was otherwise unavailable to them for some reason (typically local peoples), usually. So when anticipating what more palm oil demand would do (and I think a big part of *why* there is lobbying effort for this is because nobody really wants palm oil at especially high prices), I think you really have to look at Myanmar, Shan State, and big hydro-electric dams, logging and mining, etc. They’ve got a fraction of the under-harvested forest, for reasons of instability, and that’s what renewed demand for palm oil would be directed at.

    • I am perfectly aware of Malaysia’s status within southeast Asia as a reasonably developed country, but by the standards of the first world, it is quite poor.

      • shah8

        By the standards of the first world, Singapore is relatively poor, in its way. Uh, huh.

        That, is not a useful metric, alright? Malaysia has a per-capita income of about $15,000, with a 46.2 GDP and a 95%+ literacy rate. Whatever the hell you might say otherwise, Malaysia…is…not…a…poor…country. Saying that anyone not as rich as the OECD is “poor” is, in the very least, poor reasoning, if not inducing suspicions of elitism and racism.

        If you *really* want to go down this route, I…will…wikislap…you, and hard enough that all your distal interphalangeal joints goes from single to double as they’re blasted away from your keyboard. Got it? Be stubborn if you want, but you’ve been warned.

        • shah8

          GDP=ginni, sorry.

        • What is “wikislap”?

          • Lee

            I think it means post with a lot of data filled links to making your point.

  • I had not heard of palm oil being used as fuel. In Ghana it is used in a lot of cooking. It is the red in red-red for instance. It used to be a major commercial crop for industrial manufacturing. During WWI and WWII the British colonial authorities greatly expanded palm oil production in the Gold Coast to meet the needs of the UK’s war economy. It is still used in a lot of soaps. But, cocoa overtook palm oil as a more profitable commercial crop many decades ago here. If the US government is going to start mandating the use of palm oil as a fuel for motor vehicles I wonder how long it will be until there is a revival of palm oil plantations in west Africa?

  • ajay

    Just to be clear, I’m pretty sure that “Malaysia” in this context is mostly East Malaysia, ie Borneo. West Malaysia – the Peninsula, what used to be called Malaya – has had plantations for decades, and also has a fair amount of rainforest national park…

  • firefall

    It does make sense from the standpoint of massive corruption and the concentration of power in the developing world in the hands of a very few local elites and international investors

    I thought it was quite clear where America stands on this, and has been for a century or more: there isnt enough of it and they want more.

    • swearyanthony

      Bear in mind that the Supreme Court hasn’t yet allowed Malaysian oligarchs donate to political campaigns yet, so the Republicans (and Democrats) aren’t as likely to care.

  • DrDick

    Palm oil is also notably dirt as a fuel.

  • Stag Party Palin

    I saw lots of palm oil plantations in New Guinea several years ago – cut out of the rainforest natch. Nobody has mentioned it yet, but palm oil is the worst kind of fatty additive you can put in foods, and its use is growing. But hey, it’s my God-given right to drive my SUV from Kettleman City to Bakersfield to buy deep-fried Twinkies.

    Our appetites are the market for these palm-oil pirates.

  • Sullivan Hyde

    The Malaysian gov’t has bought a metric fuckton of credibility for itself by refusing to go along with the Washington consensus on a number of fronts.

    Opposition movements tend to fall into the old NGO trap where lacking a safe means of cultivating a domestic constituency they allow themselves to fall under the wing of the International Community. Once this happens the gov’t just says “See? They’re trying to turn us into a neoliberal hellhole just like Thailand.”

  • cpinva

    i don’t believe there’s any such thing as a “clean” source of energy, there’s dirty and less dirty. hydroelectricity is probably the cleanest source, and even it produces heat during the process, which has an adverse effect on the local environment.

    the big problem in that area of the world (not that it’s unique, by any stretch) is the pervasive government corruption, at every level. the growers own the government, and the government owns the military. what the growers want, the growers get, and the 99% just don’t factor in to that equation.

  • Malaysia is a poor country relative to first-world countries, even as it is quite a successful country by the standards of developing nations. I’ve lived in Singapore for 12 years, including a few years during which the “haze” (smoke from burning primary rainforest in West Malaysia and Indonesia) forced everyone inside, with air filters running all the time.

    There are plenty of native Malaysians who care very much about the rainforest. What there are not are ethnic Malays who care about it. No, that’s probably false, I’m sure there are plenty and I don’t know about them, partly due to my ignorance, and partly due to them accidentally falling down a flight of stairs on the way to jail. The government is little inclined to hear the complaints of those who are not “bumiputras,” so native forest dwellers are screwed. Finally, I am curious to hear what the measures are on which Singapore is relatively poor (sha8 above). I’m peeking out my window now and not seeing anything plausible.

    • So is it the Chinese who are particularly involved in these Malaysian environmental movements? The Indians?

    • shah8

      Singapore is a city on a rock. If you want to describe Singapore as being *rich*, why not compare it specifically with other cities? Do you think it would match, oh, Vancouver Island? Let alone Manhattan or London? Singapore has absolutely nothing on the rich parts of Atlanta, or Luxembourg. How about Monaco? Hmmm?

      • shah8


        This is important because classic unhelpful ngo behavior focuses far more on how much lesser these people are, and trying to fit the locals to the international movement’s square pegs. Again, Malaysia is not actually a poor country. It has a per capita income of almost 5 times India. Twice that of South Africa. From purely my own tea consumption perspective, and in interacting with people who live in Singapore, it can be the total boondocks as far as any real culture (of various sorts) is concerned. In comparison, Kuala Lumpur is a more vibrant and active tea/food locale. If anyone likes, there are tons of forums in english that native born Malaysians use, and it’s pretty easy to find out what they think about plenty of things.

        Why don’t we do another comparison. We know China is very bad about environmental protection, and hasn’t really gotten all that much better. How about comparing Malay environmental interests with Taiwan environmental interests? Among the public in general. Mebbe with some degree of sophistication about what works in getting non-OEDC populations more invested in environment? Plenty of books about it, say Shady Practices, by Schroeder.

        This is the age of the internet. Anyone with the google-fu can find plenty of answers + more questions with the right questions. One link isn’t the end of the story.

  • shah8

    Or, how about this?


    And see what honestly poor countries like Nepal or Uzbekistan is like.

  • “Bubble bath and wine”… I’ll have to try that next

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