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Of Palm Oil and Extinction

You know the old question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a noise? I’m not quite sure why that question came to mind when news came out of the extinction of Dipterocarpus coriaceus, or keruing paya, in West Malaysia. Perhaps because the extinction of an iconic...

You know the old question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around, does it make a noise? I’m not quite sure why that question came to mind when news came out of the extinction of Dipterocarpus coriaceus, or keruing paya, in West Malaysia.

Perhaps because the extinction of an iconic Southeast Asian tree species went almost entirely unnoticed. Wild animals and plants are going extinct without us even knowing.

This very large tree, which could only be found in West Malaysia, Borneo and Sumatra, is now extinct in West Malaysia as of July 2013. The last remaining patch of it was clear cut this month to make way for a new palm oil plantation.

This brings to mind a question that a Malaysian friend of mine likes to ask in Bahasa Melayu, the official language of Malaysia: Bila cukup? Translated, this intense phrase means, “When will it be enough?” Her reference is to the ongoing expansions of palm oil plantations in Malaysia, which is made up of west Malaysia — a peninsula sharing its northern border with Thailand — and east Malaysia, which shares a long border with Indonesia on the island of Borneo.

“Ini Bukan Hutan” — This is Not a Forest

There is growing concern about this development among Malaysian environmentalists, and this blatant removal of a critically endangered plant species created an uproar in their small but vocal community. Suggestions have been made that the government should step in and replant available saplings in the area, but you know what? You may be able to replace the trees, but you will never be able to replace the little things that made up the total ecosystem in that area. Each little detail that was inextricably connected to every other.

This incident will be a black eye against Malaysian palm oil, which has long marketed itself as being more protective of natural treasures and as working sustainably when compared to the Indonesians. Choo Yuen May, the Director General of the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) was recently quoted as saying, “In Malaysia, more than 50 percent of the land is [still] under forest cover. The government there has held a pledge since 1992 to maintain that 50 percent, and plantations are only supposed to expand onto land that had previously been cleared for crops like cocoa or rubber.” While we wait to see if they will issue an official statement on the incident, which has openly discredited their claims on forest canopy in Malaysia, let’s take a look at the state of the rainforests in Malaysia in relation to marketed claims.

“Malaysia has over 56 percent forest cover” is a favorite chant for the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, or MPOC, which oversees the branding and marketing of the country’s palm oil industry. How they got this number is more than a little puzzling, however. Malaysia is composed of a land mass of approximately 329,847 square kilometers. Its much celebrated Central Forest Spine scheme, including the replanting of forest corridors, will only yield 53,000 square kilometers, and that’s if it is fully implemented, which seems unlikely. That brings the total to less than 20 percent forest coverage, assuming all the needed replanting is done against all the odds mentioned in the article.

As for the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo island, the stats aren’t that impressive, either. Recent satellite mappings showed that less than 20 percent of intact forests remain in those two states. The Heart of Borneo plan to preserve the precious biodiversity there has achieved only grand conferences and parties to celebrate its protection and has done little real conservation on the ground.

I tried hard, I really did, and punched the calculator several times to try to achieve a 50 percent target, but the damned calculator wouldn’t compute! I am sure the Malaysian palm oil industry wishes Malaysia wasn’t custodian to one of the most biodiverse lands on earth. Then all eyes would be elsewhere. But other questions remain on how the country can call its collective product “sustainable” when so many of its producers do not work with any sustainable certification of any sort.

To give credit where its due, the Malaysian government and industry is making the right types of noises about sustainable palm oil, and I hope the Central Forest Spine and Heart of Borneo schemes move from mere talk to action. As you’re reading this today, more species are facing extinction in West Malaysia if this new proposal for palm oil plantations goes through. While they work at that, I hope they will take more effective measures to ensure that the keruing paya will be the last thing to go extinct in Malaysia.

— Robert Hii, Sustainable Business Consultant

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Voices for Biodiversity
Voices for Biodiversity (V4B) is an online conservation media magazine that shares the stories of people from around the globe in order to help all species survive and thrive together. The e-zine is a gathering place for those who believe that humanity’s health and well-being depend upon the health and well-being of other species and the ecosystems that support us all. Voices for Biodiversity shares the stories of eco-reporters from around the world, using the ancient human art of storytelling to connect people with each other, other species, and the natural world. The magazine’s goal is to alter human behavior in such a way as to connect the human animal with the global ecosystem in order to stem biodiversity loss and arrest the sixth extinction of species taking place in this time, the Age of the Anthropocene.