RSPO Dispatch: Oil palm is not development

posted by Margaret Ran

The RSPO is the world’s largest annual meeting of oil palm industry, environmentalists, human rights advocates, and, most importantly, community members. Today, I watched as a community member from Borneo stood up in front of oil palm producers, NGOs, and technocrats, identified himself as a victim of oil palm expansion, and tore apart the falsity that some of the world’s richest businessmen desperately want us to believe; the falsity that oil palm helps the world’s poor:

“They say oil palm is development. They say Malaysia has cars and big cities because of oil palm. But it is not oil palm, it is from other things, like our oil and our logging. Giant companies, most of them Malaysian, ignore customary land rights and take our land out from under us. They develop it into oil palm. They use only foreign workers, or people from Kuala Lumpur to drive the trucks and run the offices. For the day laborers, they will not even hire us local people, because we are Malaysians and have some basic rights. So they hire Indonesians who have come here illegally and have no rights, no one to protect them from the bad working conditions and horrible pay. The Malay people, who live near us, they all get a few hectares of land from the Company to have their own oil palm, but rather than work that land they too hire Indonesians. The government, using their oil and gas and timber money gives these Malay government jobs too, so even though they live in the countryside they can buy cars. The owners of the Company get rich, so rich. Then they take that money and invest it in oil palm in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, where they can do whatever they want, there are no laws there. And they get even richer.

But us, us people from the forest, who live in the longhouses, what are we left with? Nothing. And the Malay people, who have cars, is this a sustainable economy, that depends on illegal labor and government jobs to support the common man? I think not.

Oil palm does not lead to the development of a country. Wealth, contained in the natural resources of the our forests and controlled by us,  is flattened and burned, and then collected by the world’s rich, from Companies like Sinar Mas, Cargill, IOI, and Duta Palma. Oil palm does not bring wealth to the poor, it takes it away. Oil palm development, like so many neo-colonial trading systems, makes the poor poorer and the rich richer.

Supporting this argument, so powerfully and simply laid out by a man from the last of Borneo’s almost extinct forests with no formal education but a lifetime of wisdom,  is a year long research project. One I hope to complete some day. But for now, lets just take his word for it, as a man who has lost his livelihood, way of life, and future so one of the world’s largest companies, Wilmar, can become a little bit richer.

David Gilbert is a Research Fellow at RAN. He has worked in the tropical forests of the Amazon and Indonesia, with a special focus on forest conservation and indigenous rights. He can be reached at