The Oil Palm

International Land Use Not Reflective of Malaysian Land Management Sustainability

A recent study has sought to quantify the potential emissions that would result from palm oil plantation expansion in the Indonesian region of Kalimantan. Campaigners have been quick to use the findings to condemn the industry across the board including Malaysia, despite the fact that the area of study was located in Indonesia – a separate country with its own political system, laws and regulations.

Conflating Malaysia with other countries such as Indonesia lacks scientific and legal rigor.  For environmental management to be effective, policies must address local drivers and issues specific to the local and national context. Jurisdiction is therefore much more important than these campaigners would like to believe.

Malaysian industry operates under a rigorous regulatory framework, enforced by relevant authorities. Plantations are developed on lands long zoned for agricultural production, constituting carbon sinks rather than emissions and expansion frequently replacing less efficient plantation agriculture.

The study was based on the assumption that all lands in Indonesian Borneo currently leased for palm oil plantations will be converted, and lead to significant forest clearance. But such assumptions are not relevant to the Malaysian context, given its sustainable land management and allocation practices.

Currently, around 24% of Malaysian land area is being used for agricultural production. At the same time, the FAO estimates that Malaysia has protected approximately 5.16 million ha of forests, representing 28.2 per cent of its total forested land or 15.7 per cent of total land area.

Most of Malaysia – about 63% – is still covered by forest. Agricultural expansion is needed for food production and economic growth, but is carefully planned and permitted only in areas assessed as appropriate through national regulations. Malaysia’s land use and zoning system ensures that oil palm is planted on land previously allocated for agriculture, and as such, carbon emissions from deforestation are minimised.

It is well-recognised that Indonesia’s land tenure system is one of the key drivers of illegal logging and deforestation in that country.

Malaysian oil palm plantings have increased over the last decade, but much of this expansion has occurred on former rubber and cocoa plantations and other abandoned plantations.

Strict land management practices in Malaysia ensure that carbon emissions from the agricultural sector remain low – even to the extent that the Malaysian agriculture sector offsets emissions from the oil and gas sector. The policy is not only environmentally sustainable, but also a productive use of natural resources and land for economic development.