A blog run by Councillor Neil Harrison, who has represented Cotham Ward in Bristol for the Liberal Democrats since May 2007. It will cover things I've been working on and general stuff that is happening in Cotham, as well as my thoughts on other issues of political interest in Bristol and further afield.
A quick departure from things Cotham...
I believe that one of the duties of the politician is to bear witness to things that they know are wrong, but about which they can realistically do little or nothing. It's about acknowledging the wrong and not simply pretending it doesn't exist.
I was recently in Singapore for 'real life' work and I took an eight hour train journey to Kuala Lumpur. The photo to the left is one that I took on the way - it's a bit blurry as it was on a camera phone from a train travelling at death-defying speeds on a track built hastily in the 1930s!
What it shows is a taster of the hundreds and hundreds of miles of palm oil plantations that the train passed through. I could have taken this photo at pretty much any point in the eight hours and have recorded an identical scene. It would be impossible to overestimate the scale. Nor the sheer creepiness of the neat rows of identical trees stretching to the horizon.
Regular readers will recall that I was heavily involved over the last three years in opposing the construction of a palm oil power station in Bristol. It was this that first sensitised me to what was happening with palm oil, but the reality is that it's in so many food products, cosmetics and other substances that it's almost impossible in modern life to avoid being a consumer.
Palm oil plantations represent monoculture at its worst. They might look like rainforest, but it's an ironic lie: they are really lifeless green deserts. Nothing lives there except the palm trees themselves. All other plant species are ruthlessly removed and pesticides eliminate insect life. This leaves nothing for any larger animals to eat and the plantations drive indigenous species out and into the tiny native jungle refuges that exist on tight hillsides that are not commercially-exploitable. Orang utans are the stereotypical victims, but they are far from alone. The plantations are surrounded by pictures of humans being shot with automatic weapons, so it's not just plants and animals that run the risk of eradication.
The Malaysian (and Indonesian) government claim that palm oil is vital to their national economy and that this justifies the destruction, legal or illegal, of vast tracts of centuries-old rainforest. It's cleared first for the high-value hardwood and then the green deserts come to repopulate where rare ecosystems used to thrive. Aside from the wanton destruction and climate change ramifications, one wonders how many cures for diseases are lost in this way, many of our existing ones coming from jungle flora and fauna.
In any case, it is difficult to stomach the economic argument. Palm oil plantations are not generally owned by smallholding farmers. They are owned predominantly by the big agricultural interests, most of which probably aren't even Malaysian. There is no direct food production from palm oil and so who really benefits? Some of the locals told me that there is little employment payback from the plantations and that many/most of the workers are migrants from Laos and Cambodia who are willing to work in dangerous conditions for the low pay offered by the plantation owners.
There is some light at the end of the tunnel. The Malaysian government is slowly coming to realise that eco-tourism has the potential to make an important (and localised) contribution to its economy too. Whether they have the ability to stop the juggernaut and, in particular, to stop illegal jungle clearance is another matter. As I see it, they have two main challenges if they are going to save what's left of their natural rainforest for their own benefit and for that of the planet as a whole.
Firstly, they must find a means of reliably regulating the palm oil industry, which continues to operate at the edges of the law. The self-regulation that exists at the moment is light-touch and largely meaningless. It needs to have external regulation with teeth and it needs to grow long arms to reach into the depths of the remaining jungle (e.g. on Borneo) and stop what goes on under cover of darkness, a long way from the rule of law.
Secondly, they need to use science to find ways of recreating and replacing rainforest. This doesn't happen naturally as the ecosystems take centuries to develop. However, I am a great believer in the power of science when applied to a problem and the reversal of rainforest degradation will be a key objective over the next century as countries like Malaysia realise the damage they've done by allowing palm oil to take over.
More generally, we need as a species to moderate or end our love affair with palm oil as a wonder substance. We certainly don't need to use it as fuel (as the Dutch energy system does heavily) and we need to think about alternatives elsewhere too - again, science has a role to play. Just bear this all in mind as you tuck into your next pack of biscuits - I do!
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