How Biofuels Are Destroying Indigenous Communities in Malaysia

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Palm oil plantations have cost the Batek and the Penan their rainforest homelands

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James Whitlow Delano

Bio-fuel is not always "green" or sustainable as an alternative energy. Logging and then palm oil plantations have cost two indigenous Malaysian "little peoples" -- the Batek and the Penan, so-called in reference to both physical stature and political clout -- much of their rainforest homelands. Malaysia is now the world's second largest producer of palm oil after its larger neighbor, Indonesia, while logging companies in the country have grown into multi-national corporations, increasing the wealth of their foreign owners at the expense of the forest peoples whose homes they destroy.


In the most common progression, logging companies obtain concessions from state governments with little or no resistance from indigenous peoples who have limited land rights and rarely read or write Malay, Malaysia's official language. In the past, many communities were unaware that a logging concession had been filed until heavy equipment turned up and began felling the forest on their ancestral land.

Loggers claim they log sustainably. This is rarely the case. Opening up logging roads and dragging out felled trees devastates the thin tropical topsoil. After the second or even third pass to harvest all valuable tree species, the forest is ravaged. The soil erodes in tropical downpours; animals leave or starve to death; the silted rivers become devoid of fish. After the loggers are gone, the oil palm plantations move in.

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James Whitlow Delano has lived in Asia for 17 years. His work has appeared in magazines and photo festivals on five continents.

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