Commentary, “Our Palm Oil Conundrum” in Diplomatic Voice

Below is the full text of a commentary I recently wrote for Vol. 1 2017 of Diplomatic Voice, a publication of the Institute of Diplomatic and Foreign Affairs, Malaysia. You can view the entire publication here.

Our Palm Oil Conundrum

Malaysia’s latitude and tropical weather are ideal conditions for the oil palm tree to flourish. Currently Malaysia is the world’s second largest producer of this ‘golden crop’. We held the pole position until 2008, when Indonesia became the world’s biggest producer, a position they still proudly hold today. Combined, Indonesia and Malaysia produce more than 80% of the world’s palm oil.

Palm oil is one of the most important types of oils and fats available in the world today. Its usability is ubiquitous; palm oil is not only a common ingredient in foodstuffs, but it is also widely used in the cosmetics industry and in cleaning products, and nowadays increasingly for biofuel as well.

The demand for this ‘green gold’ has kept prices high on the commodity markets, and has been credited for bringing about national development and improving standards of living across the board in producing countries. As the world population continues to increase, the demand for oils and fats in the world is expected to continue to rise.

The oil palm is one of the most efficient crops for oils and fats. A relatively large amount of palm oil can be produced from quite a small area of land. For the same quantity, soybean oil production would require almost ten times the land area. This means that less land needs to be exploited to produce a target amount of palm oil, compared to any other vegetable oil.

Palm oil unfortunately has been linked to several environmentally unsustainable practises. These include deforestation, fires and haze pollution, habitat loss for endangered animals, and reduced biodiversity due to mono-cropping. Furthermore, some palm oil plantations have faced allegations of land grabs and human rights violations. The ‘healthiness’ of palm oil for consumption has also been an issue in the past, but this has largely been debunked – palm oil’s safety for consumption is no different than other widely available vegetable oils in the market.

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Double feature on Inside Indonesia

I am fortunate to be part of a double feature at Inside Indonesia today. An article that authored has been published there, together with an in-depth and thoughtful review of my book kindly provided by Patrick Anderson from the Forest Peoples Programme.

  1. Transboundary haze by Helena Varkkey
  2. Review: Palm oil and patronage by Patrick Anderson


Opinion Piece in Malaysian Insider

An opinion piece that I wrote about the current (September 2015) haze episode was published in the Malaysian Insider, entitled “In a sorry state over the haze”. You can read the piece here.


Malaysian Insider has recently ceased operations. Here is the full text of the article:

In a sorry state over the haze – Helena Varkkey
Published: 11 September 2015 10:30 AM

President Joko Widodo is currently facing his first serious transboundary haze episode since assuming office in October 2014.

Many in the region are watching with interest on how Indonesia’s new premier engages with this long-running regional problem.

The former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono grappled with haze and its related diplomatic tensions throughout the entirety of his presidency. Haze episodes, which can affect certain parts of Indonesia and Malaysia and the entirety of Singapore, often give rise to heated but diplomatic exchanges between the three countries. Continue reading

Singapore’s Transboundary Pollution Bill: Prospects and Challenges

I sat down with Khor Reports for a Q&A on my commentary below. Please click here for the Khor Reports article.

Last June saw Singapore battling with its most severe episode of haze yet. During that period Singapore’s Pollutant Standards Index hit the all time record high of 401. This event ignited a diplomatic row between Indonesia and Singapore, with Singapore’s Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources , Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan almost immediately accusing Indonesia of not caring about the welfare of its neighbours. It was also around this time that Dr. Balakrishnan first revealed plans to table a Transboundary Pollution Bill that would provide for criminal and civil liability for any Singaporean or non-Singaporean entity causing or contributing to transboundary haze pollution in Singapore.

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NGO Roundtable on Environment, Sustainability and Climate Change

NGO Roundtable on Environment, Sustainability and Climate Change
Organised by Singapore Institute of International Affairs
Carlton Hotel, 1 November 2013

The Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) organized a day-long NGO Roundtable on Environment, Sustainability and Climate Change on 1 November 2013 in Singapore. Around 30 participants, including environmental activists and academicians from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, were in attendance. Participating organisations included Greenpeace, Walhi, Pelangi Indonesia, World Resources Institute, Global Environmental Centre, Sahabat Alam Malaysia, ISIS Malaysia, Surya university Indonesia, and the National University of Singapore. The author represented the University of Malaya.

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Indonesia’s Moratorium on Deforestation

In May this year, Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono released Presidential Instruction no. 6/2013, instructing for a two-year extension to a ban on clearing 158 hectares of primary rainforests and peatland. This extends the original two-year moratorium on deforestation that was declared on May 2011 (Presidential Instruction No. 10/2011), under a $1 billion deal with Norway to incentivise forest protection in Indonesia as part of the UN-REDD Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries. The ban preserves about 50% of Indonesia’s primary forests, in an attempt to reduce the country’s carbon emissions, up to 85% of which have been traced to the clearing and draining of carbon-rich peatland, mostly related to plantation development. This agreement was to ‘pause’ business-as-usual development to give time for the government to establish a degraded land database[1], to provide the necessary information to identify areas of land acceptable for the establishment of economic activity, especially oil palm plantations.

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