In the palm of monoculture

A insight into the place of oil palm monoculture in nature

By Chyi Chung


I grew up in Malaysian Borneo. I remember the long drives to the airport on the outskirts of town. I remember where the urban sprawl relents to a sea of prickly green, dominating the car window for the rest of the journey. I remember admiring row upon row of short, stunted trees with fans for leaves, seemingly reaching beyond the horizon. Having moved away, the oil palm trees are my first sight of welcome out of the plane window. From this bird’s eye vantage, their monoculture is an impressive mark of agricultural science in nature.


Oil palm (E. guineensis) is native to an area between modern-day Gambia and Angola. It was introduced as a cash crop to South-East Asia by British and Dutch colonialists in the 20th century. A productive perennial crop, it yields up to 3.6 tonnes of oil annually from the stones of its kernelsseven times of what soy and rapeseed can achieve per hectare of land. It exists as a semi-solid state at room temperature (a property associated with more expensive animal fat), hence allowing fractionation for different uses. In 2014, WWF found that half of the packaged goods from British supermarkets contain palm oil, an unsurprising statistic considering its versatile applications, ranging from chocolate bars and biscuits, to detergents and cosmetics. The global palm oil market stands at 48 million tonnes; 85% of which comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, the two countries that share Borneo with oil-rich, land-locked Brunei.


The world’s peatland forests, concentrated in Southeast Asia, harbour masses of carbon dioxide. From 1990 to 2010, peat forest cover in the region fell from 77% to 36%, coinciding with the rise of oil palm plantations. To clear land, slash-and-burn is often callously adopted out of ease, despite its illegality. Chopping down accessible vegetation before setting the rest ablaze is an effective method, but with a catch: fires on peat are almost unquenchable, releasing dense, toxic clouds of greenhouse gases.


In 2015, El Niño drove warmer waters of the Western Pacific along the equator eastward to accumulate in the coastlines of South-East Asia. El Niño is the term dedicated to a climate cycle beginning in the Pacific Ocean which can have consequences across the globe. This warming effect merely added fuel to the forest fires raging across Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) and the neighbouring Sumatra Island, resulting in thick haze smothering the region. In the worst affected areas, residents lived in a sepia-tinted world, where Pollutant Standard Index rose to six-fold above hazardous levels. Water bombs were dropped to cleanse the air by inducing rain. Under international pressure, the Indonesian government imposed a ban on cultivating oil palm on peat, but lifted it within a year, belying their environmental responsibility over commercial interests.


The world is ravenous for palm oil, with demands expected to double by 2050. A push for a better industry resulted in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil forming in 2004, which works on a certification system like Fair Trade’s. But detractors are quick to highlight that the skew in its committeea third being goods manufacturers with oil producers making up less than a fifthmay just be a smokescreen for multi-national companies to hide behind. From heavy timber logging in the early 1900s to the current palm oil boom, the Bornean rainforest has been shrinking to its core, along with its delicate ecology. Animals indigenous to the island include the pygmy elephant[1], sun bear[2], and orang-utan[3]; all three are at least vulnerable, with the critically endangered orang-utan adopted as mascot for anti-deforestation campaigns.


A 2008 ecological study by E.B Fitzherbert, shows that an oil palm plantation only sustains 15% of its natural forest diversity, in which lies the fallibility of monoculture (single crop cultivation). From the Great Irish Famine to the decline of the South American rubber trade, leaf blights and other diseases have obliterated whole populations of monoculture crops in the past. For example, recently, there have been concerns about the susceptibility of the Cavendish banana to a new strain of Panama Disease. Agriculture sustains our ever-growing human population, but monoculture is a short-term solution. Polyculture and different alternatives of commodities should be encouraged. Only then can science imposed on nature become more in line with science in nature.


[1] Pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis): Measuring around 9 feet in height, they are three times the miniature of their Asian counterpart, from whom they are differently evoilved after being isolated as Borneo broke away from the Eurasian mainland 300,000 years ago.

[2] Sun bear (Helarctos malayanus): Names for their distinctive yellow collar of fur akin to a rising sun against their coat of black, they are actually nocturnal.

[3] Orang-utan (Pongo pygmaeus): A different species to their Sumatran counterpart (P. abelii), they are more likely to travel on forest ground due to fewer land-roaming predators, e.g. Sumatran tiger, have a shorted hair trim.


All images are original photographs by Chyi Chung


From Issue 14

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