It is not heavenly powers but the vested interests of political groups in power, their supporters and big economic corporates that monopolise large oil palm schemes, Carol Yong writes.
The British were the ones behind the development of the oil palm (elaeis guineensis) industry in Malaya. For example, the first large oil palm plantation was established in Kuala Selangor in 1917 and operated by English landowners.
So, if the current minister in charge of plantations and commodities now tells us that palm oil is God’s gift (“Sawit Anugerah Tuhan”) to us, then the British might think they are God!
However, the fact remains that it was mainly after the British left that Peninsular Malaysia followed later by Sabah and then Sarawak moved towards large-scale oil palm plantations.
I’ll give you a greasy example: in line with the “politics of development” of the Sarawak government, then-Chief Minister Taib Mahmud engineered the “New Concept” (Konsep Baru) land development policy in 1996 to boost the privatisation of land for commercial plantation in Sarawak, notably the ‘golden crop’ – oil palm.
Over time, the bulk of Sarawak’s indigenous populations ‘underdeveloped’ native customary land (NCR) was (and still is), predictably, the ideal land for large-scale schemes devoted to oil palm production. This had important implications for NCR landowners because, among other things, the ownership and control of such agricultural enterprises were passed on to state and corporate vested interests, the most notable being those linked to the longest-serving chief minister.
Hundreds of cases have been filed in courts by Sarawak’s native landowners. Data compiled by NGOs based on legal firms’ records on “Sarawak NCR Land Dispute Cases Involving Logging and Other Issues” revealed that more than 70 cases from over 200 NCR disputes pending in Sarawak courts between April 1995 and January 2010 directly involve large oil palm developers, both state-owned and private corporate businesses. The list today would probably be longer.
In the case of Sabah and Peninsular Malaysia, one suspects similar trends – the beneficiaries are generally vested interests of serving political groups in power, their supporters and big economic corporates monopolising the big oil palm schemes. And there is no need to guess who the main losers are.
Crucially, too, in many areas, the expansion of the palm oil industry has resulted in conflicts that continue to this day, between the large palm oil industry players (private and state) and the indigenous peoples of both east and west Malaysia. Many independent smallholders are gradually becoming marginalised farmers, and the majority of women are in this category.
Over several decades, a succession of Malaysian federal and various state governments have aggressively fended off criticisms and questions linked to the oil palm industry such as deforestation, biodiversity loss, water and air pollution, and undoubtedly also violations of the human rights of those defending their right to their land.
Astute observers would realise that, ahead of an upcoming general or state election, suddenly the government, lubricated politicians and allies of politicians in high government circles appear so willing to speak up for smallholders – more precisely, the oil palm smallholders. Thess politicians and their allies dish out promises of going all out to help these smallholders, including encouraging independent smallholders to diversify their economic activities for more sources of income.
This is a sharp shift in their positions from over several decades when smallholders were heavily criticised for unproductive land use and for being inefficient as small diversified farmers, going by the logic of the state politics of land development.
Remember the July-October 2015 transboundary haze fires and smoke, choking millions of people in South East Asia, particularly in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore? The Indonesian government blamed both large companies and small-scale farmers for burning peatland and creating the dense and acrid smoke. In contrast, Malaysia conveniently blamed independent family-based farmers and smallholders for slash-and-burn agriculture and oil palm. To divert bad publicity away from big plantations?
The ‘caring government’ charade is particularly important in the semi-rural and rural areas to make an impact on this large but marginalised group of smallholders, whose existence for a long, long time has not been so salient.
After all, aren’t the looming elections also a heightened time of vote-wooing?
Carol Yong is an activist and independent writer