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 in West Malaysia.

It might have something to do with my personal concerns that wild animals and plants are going extinct without us even knowing and how a shallow biodiversity will impact us all.

Anyway, this very large tree which can 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 likes to ask in Bahasa Melayu, the official language of Malaysia.

"Bila cukup?" Which translated means "When will it be enough?" Her reference is to the ongoing expansions of palm oil plantations in Malaysia, which is made up of both West Malaysia which is a peninsula sharing its northern border with Thailand and East Malaysia, which shares a long border with Indonesia on the island of Borneo.

There is growing concern 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. If preserving nature was that simple, we could remove all the old forests left standing in Canada and the US and replace it with eucalyptus plantations to feed our timber and biofuel needs!

This incident will be one massive black eye against Malaysian palm oil which has long marketed itself as being more protective of natural treasures and working sustainably 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 policies in Malaysia, let's take a look at the state of the rainforests there in relation to marketed claims.

"Malaysia has over 50% forest cover
" is a favorite chant for the MPOC or Malaysian Palm Oil Council, which oversees the branding and marketing of Malaysian palm oil. How they got this number is a puzzle however. Malaysia is composed of a land mass of approximately 329,847 square kilometers. Its much celebrated Central Forest Spine scheme if fully implemented with the replanting of forest corridors will only yield 53,000 square kilometers. That's only less than 20% forest coverage assuming all the needed replanting is done against all the odds mentioned.

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% 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 little real conservation on the ground.


I tried hard, I really did and punched the calculator several times to achieve a 50% target but the figures do not lie. 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. Other questions remain as well 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 the palm oil industry and the Malaysian government works on defining sustainable palm oil, I hope they will take more effective measures to ensure that dipterocarpus coriaceus , will be the last thing to go extinct in Malaysia.