On a mission to expose the human costs of palm oil

posted by Josh Ran

I just arrived in Kuching, Malaysia, after 20 grueling hours of travel from San Francisco. I’m here to take part in a fact finding mission organised by Sarawak Dayak Iban Association (SADIA), Tenaganita, People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS) and Pesticide Action Network Asia-Pacific (PAN AP). Over the next week, we’ll be visiting communities threatened by proposed palm oil plantations to learn more about what’s happening and find out what we can do to help. We’ll also meet with Malaysian advocacy groups and hold a couple of press conferences to call attention to the threats posed by palm oil expansion.

During my trip, I had lots of time to do some background reading. Here’s what I found out:

  • Between 1990 and 2000, Malaysia lost an average of 78,500 hectares of forest per year. Between 2000 and 2005, the rate of forest destruction increased by 85.1%. The rapid increase in deforestation comes largely due to the expansion of oil palm plantations as that commodity has become a popular agrofuel (industrial-scale biofuel) option. Currently, Malaysia supplies about half of the world’s palm oil.
  • Malaysia is one of the world’s leading carbon emitters – not because they’re a major industrial power, but because the rapid rate of deforestation is releasing all of the carbon that those forests had captured for centuries.
  • The state of Sarawak is the largest state in the Malaysian federation located on the island of Borneo. Of the 2.2 million people in Sarawak, 60% belong to Indigenous groups collectively known as the Dayak people, who have settled in the area for centuries.
  • The way that land rights work in Malaysia, Indigenous groups must prove that they have used the land continuously since 1958 in order to establish their right to the land. In addition to the problem of “proving” continuous use without official documentation, the Indigenous communities face the added challenge that their sustainable farming practices of leaving fields fallow for several years means that they often haven’t “continuously” used any particular patch of land. With the current interpretation of the land rights law, the state government has stopped approving applications for Communal Reserves and has granted 60 – 90 year leases and concessions known as Provisional Leases to logging and plantation companies; usually closely related to people in the governing elite; to exploit previously recognized Indigenous lands for logging and subsequent replanting with oil palm.
  • The Dayak people won a victory last year when the Federal Court in Kuala Lumpur (the highest court in Malaysia) recognized the pre-existence of native customary rights over land before any statute or legislation. Despite the Federal Court decision, the state government continues to grant Provisional Leases to logging and plantation companies.
  • Plantations are increasingly coming into conflict with Dayak communities, having been accused of desecrating graves, destroying cultural artifacts, stealing timber from communal forest reserves, and other transgressions.
  • Native communities and leaders who act to protect their land rights are persecuted, arrested and imprisoned to try to get them to give up their claims to the land. The industry also sends thugs to industry to harass the local community.

Tomorrow, our delegation will head out to some of these threatened communities and find out more about what’s going on. I’ll try to post an update when we get back to Kuching on Tuesday. In the meantime, you can find out more about these issues and take action to support a moratorium on agrofuels at http://ran.org/campaigns/rainforest_agribusiness/.