Palm Oil Plantations and the Environment in Southeast Asia

Last month, I took a road trip from Penang, Malaysia to the capital Kuala Lumpur to attend the annual IUCN Academy of Environmental Law Colloquium (August 6-9, 2019).  Apart from seeing some scenic tourist spots, such as Melakka which is one of the original places where the Dutch and the British had their colonial headquarters prior to Malaysia’s independence, the trip was relatively uneventful. We did stop at various places to check out the sights or special foods.   And the main north-south freeway route was a modern and easy drive, not much unlike a freeway drive in the US.

What I did find remarkable, however, was the visible vegetation, which was pretty much the same through most of the four hours – miles and miles of palm plantations, sometimes as far as the eye could see beyond the freeway.  Environmental concern about palm oil plantations have steadily grown over the years.  These plantations destroy enormous swaths of native forest and replace naturally occurring biologically diverse ecosystems with a monoculture in order to supply the worlds hunger for palm oil.  Over the past few decades, palm oil demand and production has risen rapidly because some of its qualities make it a great additive or base for many foods and products.  Take a look at the ingredient labels of your favorite foods, and you may discover it listed.

In Indonesia, especially, palm oil plantation have presented especially serious problems because the methods by which forest lands have been cleared in order to make way for palm oil plantations has given rise to many serious forest fires, including igniting some of the peat in the soil, that have been incredibly difficult to extinguish.  Interestingly, the result of some of these fires have been serious transboundary air pollution problems that have affected also Singapore.

I have been following the transboundary air pollution issue with special interest because it’s given rise to a Singaporean statute, The Transboundary Haze Pollution Act of 2014 (THPA).  The title and issue should immediately give away why this is so remarkable . . . Singapore is a small island nation of just a little over 5 million people living on 280 square miles.  In other words, air pollution originating in nearby Indonesia, especially from the forest fires and peat fires associated with land clearing for palm oil planations,  will necessarily affect air quality in Singapore.


Southeast Asian Haze 2013 (Wikimedia Commons). Red spots indicate fires.

In order to protect air quality in Singapore, the THPA explicitly purports to regulate sources of pollution OUTSIDE of Singapore.  Under the statute, an offense of the statute would result if an entity causes air pollution affecting Singapore, which could be punished with a fine of up to 100,000 Singaporean dollars per day!  From a legal perspective, statutes that have an explicit extraterritorial reach are quite unusual, though not unheard of.  The US has sought to reach conduct outside of the US in the antitrust context, for example; but it has generally not done so on environmental issues (though US citizens remain subject to the reach of US law even outside of the US).  Anyway, from what I understand, the THPA has given rise to tricky issues in regards to conflict/tension with Indonesia, where much of the fire-related air pollution affecting Singapore originates, and enforcement has not been straight-forward.  In other words, the story on this statute is still playing itself out.

Since I mentioned my road trip to Melakka, I feel obligated to share images of the sites and food places we visited!  It includes an image of “Mamee,” the instant noodle monster . . . he (it? she?) looks surprisingly like Cookie Monster from Sesame Street . . .  mmmh.  We also found lots of durian (my kryptonite), a great Peranakan restaurant serving Laksa (a Malaysian specialty), and a tandoori/naan outdoor restaurant serving Pakistani/Northern Indian cuisine (just the tastiest tandoori I have ever had!).





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