Clouds of toxic haze are drifting across the Malaysian peninsula once again, in the worst uncontrolled burnoff since 2015. Like the Amazon, these smog-belching fires are deliberately lit for agricultural purposes. In this part of the world the main culprits are the palm oil and pulp and paper industries, as slash-and-burn methods are the quickest and cheapest way to clear land to make way for plantations.
We are often asked — how can we prevent this from happening again? And if these fires are being deliberately lit for economic purposes, who are we to tell a developing country not to lift its rural population out of poverty?
Well, there are many ways we can stop these seasonal fires from creating toxic haze, threatening the health of millions, destroying rainforests and vital carbon stocks in years to come. But it is largely a matter of listening to the people on the ground. Palm oil smallholders are not villains, and not everyone wants to lose their land to plantations in order to get rich quick. You’ll find a diversity of views across Malaysia and Indonesia: it is not a zero sum game of poverty versus climate activism.
When the EU committed to massively reducing its use of palm oil for biofuels, the price of palm oil dropped. This relatively small commitment sent a shockwave through the industry, resulting in backlash from the pro-palm oil lobby. Malaysia’s top supermarket went so far as to ban palm oil free labelled products, with the Indonesian Drug and Food agency quickly following suit.
The EU ban caused a stink, and made people think twice about the future of palm oil in an increasingly environmentally conscious world.
Oil palm trees stop producing fruit after roughly 25 years, after which landowners and farmers need to decide whether they replant and recommit for another 25 years. In Malaysia, scores of plantations are on the verge of expiry, at the tail end of government planting programs. It is a pretty big gamble to back a pariah commodity for another quarter century in a volatile market, especially when the plants don’t start producing for 3-5 years.
Farmers are hyper-aware of the threat the EU ban, and bans like it, pose. People we spoke to have talked about diversifying planting when their crops expire, either by planting timber and tropical fruits alongside new oil palms, planting something else entirely, or attempting reforestation so that the soil can recover from decades of pesticide use. Other cash crops such as durian, could present an alternative to monocropping if they are grown together, however they will reproduce the same problems if native forest is cleared for their production.
Seemingly small commitments against palm oil from faraway governments have results on the ground. While many oil palms are on the verge of expiry, now is a perfect moment for more international corporations and government to announce bans on conflict palm oil. If the financial carpet is pulled out from under these oily corporate interests then the intensity of the fires will be reduced, as the rush for new land for oil palm falls.
A huge percentage of the indigenous populations who call this land home do not want plantations on their land. This is why communities have been fighting tooth and nail against these companies for decades, setting up blockades, protesting and fighting in the courts.
If these rainforests were recognized as native customary land, communities might decide that a nominal percentage of their land might be converted to oil palm to serve as income for the community. But according to the communities we work with, keeping the vast majority of the forest intact is essential. The forest provides drinking water, timber resources for building longhouses, rattan for traditional crafts, and animals and plants for food and medicine. These people have the strongest incentive of all for keeping their forests intact — it supports their very way of life.
Many of the communities we work with want to find ways to lift their longhouses out of poverty while keeping the forest standing. We know that many on the Indonesian side of the border feel the same way.
Around Borneo, investment in eco-tourism has created jobs that require forests to remain intact. Biodiversity research has done the same. Our friends at Health in Harmony on the Indonesian side of the border have seen a 90% decrease in illegal logging by providing healthcare, and therefore removing a large financial burden from the community. On top of this, they have 125 “chainsaw buyback” entrepreneurs running new small businesses. Our latest project, the Baram Heritage Survey, will train and hire indigenous scientists to monitor their own land, codifying traditional ecological knowledge and substantiating grounds for forest protection. Indigenous communities hope that a forest monitoring task force will grow out of this project, which could also patrol for hotspots and fires.
Realistically, we are going to see more of these seasonal fires in the years to come. But there are important ways to bolster the campaigns moving in the right direction. There is no lack of imagination from people on the ground, who work in tandem with the international conservation and environmental movements. To reduce the argument into poverty versus westernized activism is to play right into the hands of the corporate interests who dismiss both international calls for change, and the gamechangers fighting to protect these rainforests on the ground.
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