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Palm Oil and Biodiversity in Malaysia: Can They Be Reconciled?

One of the biggest threats to tropical biodiversity is deforestation. In the case of Southeast Asia, specifically peninsular and East Malaysia, large swathes of rainforest are being cleared to accommodate the exponentially increasing demand for palm oil. Palm oil has become ubiquitous to the modern consumers’ diet; it is in vast numbers of products used in everyday life: shampoo, lipstick, soap, biofuels, preservatives, medication and cleaning products, among others. In fact, Malaysia is the leading exporter of palm oil, contributing to 46% of global exports.

While a staple in most products, palm oil production presents an environmental nightmare. The process involves the clearing of forests and then planting oil palms (usually the species Elaeis guineensis) and cultivating them for the seed. The seeds are then put through a mill to extract a refined oil that is pervasive in the cosmetic and food industries. This process is known as monoculture, the practice of cultivating a single crop in a given area. Alternatively,  pre-existing cropland is sometimes converted to oil palm plantations which has massive ramifications on the equatorial ecosystems of Malaysia as well as threatening the biodiversity of the local flora and fauna. A 2018 general report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), entitled Oil Palm and Biodiversity recently found that palm oil is currently damaging local biodiversity. Palm oil was listed as one of the main threats to 193 species, including, but not limited to, the tiger, sun bear, and gibbon.

Additionally, these tropical forests host the last three remaining species of orangutan on earth. In the case of Sarawak, the Malaysian state on Borneo island, the two main activities that threaten habitat degradation and forest loss are logging as well as large scale land-use conversion into plantations. In Sabah, another Malaysian state on Borneo, 60% of orangutans were affected by transformations into industrial oil palm or paper pulp plantations, deforestation or selective logging and in Sarawak, the figure was 10%, by 2015. The rates of orangutan decline were highest in areas deforested and converted into plantations in Sabah. 

Hence, the issue of orangutan conservation in the Malaysian Borneo has become a matter of great urgency. Many conservation experts expect orangutans to have low survival rates outside undisturbed or slightly disturbed areas of forests. However, in light of the fact that most orangutan populations live outside protected areas, the response of orangutans to intense degradation of their habitat is critical but understudied. In a 2010 study conducted regarding the resilience of orangutans to deforestation/forest degradation, orangutans were found to survive for over two decades in exotic tree species such as the acacia plantations near Kutai National Park, Indonesia. This does not mean that plantations have the same conservation value as natural forests; the long-term viability of these populations must definitely continue to be studied. Orangutans traditionally feed on a combination of fruits, flowers and leaves which would be less readily available in such a plantation. Hence, observations of the orangutans feeding on acacia bark and complaints of damage to the acacia lead the experts to believe that orangutans were relying on ‘fallback foods’ such as sap and leaves. The extent, however, to which the nearby national park was providing additional resources and food to these populations is uncertain. What is becoming clear is that conservationists need to increase efforts to sustain orangutan populations within these ‘plantation forests’ and the surrounding matrix habitats to increase survival rates. 

It is unlikely that the Malaysian oil palm industry will go quietly into the night as the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) insists that its palm oil is ‘sustainable’. Indeed, an industry that earned Malaysia $14.4 thousand million in exports in 2007 is an important cog in the machine of economic growth that drives the nation. It is impossible and even detrimental to conservation efforts to get rid of the plantations overnight, as it would harm the orangutans that already live there. 

Instead of removing orangutans from the site of the plantations, which can be costly and impractical, the experts believe that it would be best to increase the size and interconnectedness of the conservation areas within the plantations to retain viable orangutan populations. Greater self-regulation in environmental management tools to reduce the negative impacts on the ecosystem are needed as well as a separate division within the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change tasked with tackling challenges to biodiversity. Incorporating the needs of developing countries such as Malaysia’s need for economic development within the plan for conservation is the most practical policy recommendation in trying to mitigate the devastation caused to the orangutan populations. 



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