Oil Palm: The Miracle Tree?

In Sarawak it sometimes seems almost every economic and
political story – and quite a slice of the cultural and social ones as well –
ends up at the foot of one miraculous tree: oil palm.

 Always in bloom, fast growing and, with new seed strains,
massively productive, for many, oil palm is the wunder-plant. Its fruit, when refined, produces an oil that might
deliver the state from poverty, while simultaneously answering the world’s
needs for both food and fuel.

young oil palms. Miri-Marudi.jpg

Crude Palm Oil (CPO), crushed from the tree’s fruit, can be
refined for biodeisel and bio ethanol production, for pharmaceuticals and
olechemicals. The tree trunk makes good timber, its waste is ideal for biomass.
CPO’s main use – as a basis for a vegetable oil widely used throughout Asia –
is also lauded for its similarities to olive oil. It has a high carotene
content, is laced with Vitamin A and E, and has a lack of trans-fatty acids –
the nasties in margarine and butter.

 Yet for others, oil palm is a blight – another compelling
reason for protest and a visible symbol of the corruption and mismanagement of
their country.

 Cutting down rain forest for plantations destroys habitats
and wrecks biodiversity, the critics say. The amounts of CO2 released into the
atmosphere in the process will for many decades far outweigh the amount saved
by CPO-based biodesiel and bioethanol.

The creation of plantations is also massively disruptive of
traditional ways of life, with the destruction of native land rights often the

At the same time, with collapsing oil prices and global
recession, demand for CPO has also collapsed, with millions of tons of unwanted
palm oil stocked up in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. No one even wants the
stuff, some argue, with the Malaysian government now desperately trying to
invent new ways to use it.

So, palm oil: good or bad? What exactly is ‘the truth’ about
the miracle tree?

One problem in discerning this is the tendency to dress up
what happens in terms of two competing grand narratives, both of which are
familiar and comfortable, but neither of which are as useful as they might
appear to be at first glance.

First there is the grand narrative of Progress. In the state
these days, particularly within the state-sponsored Sarawak Corridor of
Renewable Energy (SCORE), Progress is often reminiscent of its late 19th
century and early 20th century versions elsewhere: big industrial
plants, giant power projects and lots of marching towards the future.

Progress seeks to deliver the primitive, the ‘undeveloped’
world of the dark interior into the light and illumination of an urbanised
globe. It promises schools and hospitals, roads and proper drains.

Yet this is 2008 and not 1908. Such a narrative nowadays has
to be shot through with lurking doubts and unpleasant characters. It is
ambiguous and often deadly. Its antecedents are colonial and totalitarian.
Anyone who has picked up a history book over the last century must have seen
just how dark the story of this Progress can get.

On the other hand though, and in opposition, there is the
second grand narrative: Nature.

This may be red in tooth and claw, but somehow also offers a
more authentic life, the dream of a road back to the beginning. This is a
pre-urban, pre-market world, full of hardship, but correspondingly
pre-commodified, innocent in quite a different way from the drumbeat of
Progress and the march of its new, infantilised Citizens.

Yet it is also a world without literacy, hierarchical and
rigid, superstitious and narrow. Darwin’s survival of the fittest is the rule,
with one slip, one injury, often meaning death, far from hospitals or even
basic medical care.

In Sarawak, it is tempting to conclude that the two
narratives are now clashing, as the expanding plantation companies take on the
natives over control of the land. This makes for good theatre and an
easy-to-follow plot, with characters that can be straightforwardly assigned
roles and booed or cheered correspondingly.

Yet by doing so, the elusive truth slips away, its departure
covered by the drama. Instead, I have come to think after a short time here,
that it is not as important which characters you sympathise with in the play,
as it is to ask a question: who owns the theatre?

The answer to that question can be much more illuminating,
and in trying to find the answer, it is possible to glimpse, darting in the
shadow, another truth: that what is going on in Sarawak is really a much more
murky battle for land, rights and justice than about this clash of grand
narratives. Or, put another way, whose land is Sarawak anyway?