“Before we had a happy life,” Ms. Gaong said she tells her grandchildren. “Now it’s a difficult life. There’s nothing left for them.”
The recent story in the New York Times titled “Clashes Between Tribes and Agribusiness Increase in Malaysia” tells an all-too common story. It’s not a happy story. It’s the story of farming families getting forced off their land, of vanishing cultures, of corporations trying to “compensate” families for their livelihoods and decades of subsistence with $1,600.
Indigenous people in Malaysia have long complained that their historical claims to their land are being sacrificed in the name of progress. But as the country continues its push toward economic prosperity, with key commodities like palm oil a valuable export, rights groups and lawyers say that encroachment on indigenous land is increasing.
Read the powerful story for yourself. It takes place in Sarawak, which is Malaysia’s largest state on the northwest coast of Borneo. The state is known for its natural and cultural wonders, but Malaysian palm oil producers are destroying Borneo’s carbon-rich peat forests faster than ever before. According to Mongabay and Wetlands International, “more than one third (353,000 hectares or 872,000 acres) of Sarawak’s peatswamp forests and ten percent of the state’s rainforests were cleared between 2005 and 2010. About 65 percent of the area was converted for oil palm.”
The article goes on to say:
The land that he says once thrived with an abundance of crops that fed his family and provided their livelihood has been stripped bare. Young palm trees now sprout from the ochre-colored earth where he says his relatives had lived since before World War II.
Indigenous peoples and forest communities are not the only ones impacted by palm oil expansion. From an interview with Dr. Marc Ancrenanz of HUTAN in 2010:
Genetic studies in Sabah show that orang-utan population have declined by 50 to 90% over the past few decades. This severe decline is due to several causes such as hunting and pet trade, but the foremost reason is forest losses when the forest is cut down and converted to agriculture.
So we have to ask ourselves: Is using palm oil in Girl Scout cookies or Skippy Peanut Butter worth the wholesale destruction of cultural and ecological biodiversity that it creates?