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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Environment Panel, US-ASEAN Conference on Legal Issues of Regional Importance 2017

The 2017 US-ASEAN Conference on Legal Issues of Regional Importance was held at Marina Mandarin, Singapore on 8-9 May. It was organised by the US Embassy in Singapore, The Asia Foundation and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. I was invited to participate in the conference and speak on the Environment Panel about the Transboundary Haze as a case study of a regionally important legal issue.

The panel was led by Professor Koh Kheng Lian, Honorary Director of the Asia-Pacific Centre for Environmental Law, Singapore. Prof Koh gave an extensive overview of the legal structure for environmental governance in ASEAN. The other panelist was Dr Jay Batongbacal, Director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea, the Philippines. He spoke on the governance of maritime environmental issues, particularly focusing on illegal fishing and maritime sustainability in the region. It was an honour speaking on such an esteemed panel and being able to take part in an important academic discussion on the future of our region.

Book Presentation to RSPO

I was invited by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (Kuala Lumpur office) to give a presentation on my book, “The Haze Problem in Southeast Asia: Palm Oil and Patronage”.  Apart from the book’s major findings, I also provided some analysis of latest developments on the issue, including Jokowi’s approach to haze mitigation and Singapore’s new form of engagement with ASEAN over haze. Other RSPO offices around the world also followed the talk via weblink. The Prezi for the lecture can be found here.

Exploring Geographies of Globalisation in Kuching, Borneo

I was invited to join a group of students and lecturers from the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, University of Newcastle, United Kingdom on a field trip in Kuching. I functioned as their ‘local’ academic resource person. The trip was to expose the students to geographies of globalisation in Kuching, especially in relation to how the palm oil industry has affected the process of globalisation here.

We visited a SALCRA (Sarawak Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority) plantation and palm oil mill in Setenggang, about an hour away from Kuching. This was a great opportunity for the students to experience a real functioning organised palm oil operation, from plantation to mill.

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Book Review by Dr Rory Padfield

Dr Rory Padfield, formerly of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and currently at Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom very kindly wrote a review of my book, “The Haze Problem in Southeast Asia: Palm Oil and Patronage”. An early, condensed version of this review was read out at my book launch at University Malaya last year (by Dr Roy Anthony Rogers), and the full-length version has been recently published in the Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography.

A (quite amusing, if I do say so!) excerpt:

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Keynote Speaker at ICSHGS 2017 and Public Lecture at Universitas Tamansiswa, Palembang

I was invited to be the Keynote Speaker at the International Conference of Social, Humanities, and Government Sciences (ICSHGS) 2017, organised by Universitas Tamansiswa, Palembang, Indonesia. The COnference was held alongside the annual meeting of Asosiasi Dosen Ilmu Pemerintahan Seluruh Indonesia (ADIPSI).

I presented a paper entitled “In Three Years We Would Have Solved This: Jokowi, ASEAN and Transboundary Haze”. This paper was also awarded best paper of the conference, and is due to be published in the ADIPSI journal, Jurnal Studi Penerintahan: Journal of Government and Politics later this year. The Prezi for the presentation can be found here. I also had the opportunity to present the same paper to a public audience at Universitas Tamansiswa. Continue reading