Blog Entry #36: Penang, Malaysia: The Oil Palm Boom
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
After a short three-day crossing of the Bay of Bengal from India, and a nighttime passage through the remote Andaman Islands, we reached the northwestern Malaysian island province of Penang.
The capital city and former British colony, Georgetown, emerged eerily through the mist in our early morning arrival, and soon we could see the 65-story KOMTAR tower, built in 1978 and at the time Asia’s tallest building.
|Modern high-rises in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia|
My chance to get to experience Penang would have to wait a day, however, as on our first day in Malaysia I was leading and “FDP” (faculty-developed-practicum) on the mainland to look at palm oil production and rice cultivation, two of Malaysia’s main agricultural sectors.
Soon our group of 20 was headed across the Penang Bridge to the mainland, and south to Malpom Industries’ palm oil processing plant.
|Global packaging plant|
|Marco: International Furniture plant|
Malaysia was one of the “Asian Tiger” economies of the 1980s and 1990s, as it moved to diversify its largely agricultural economy through manufacturing and industrialization, and the effects are noticeable everywhere: in the 40 km between Penang and Malpom Industries along the modern western Malaysia expressway, we passed corporate firm after firm of companies specializing in everything from textiles to food packaging to electronics to furniture.
|Signs of the global economy...|
|Global Economy continued. Palm plantation in background|
It is my first time visiting one of the “tiger economies” and it is hard not to be impressed with how Malaysia had transformed itself into one of SE Asia’s most affluent societies, largely eliminating poverty. By 2000 Malaysia also has ranked as the United States’ 10th largest partner in trade volume.
|Malpom Industries Palm Oil Plant|
|Fruit bunches on African palm tree|
|Ripe fruit ready for oil extractions|
|Processing the palm fruit to extract palm oil|
It was impressive to see how virtually all the different by-products of the milling process are recycled into the process,
from the left over fiber being used to fuel the boilers that run the steam turbines, to the pulp recycled into cattle feed and compost. Still, there is both water effluent and air waste that has to be dealt with.
|Recycling used palm oil fruit bunches|
The rapid expansion of the palm oil industry has generated tremendous debate and controversy over its social and environmental effects. On one side, much of the palm oil fruit is provided by small landholders who are able to stay on their land with palm production, selling to the processing plants, and thereby participate in the cash economy.
But it also has significant environmental problems. Wikipedia lists at least 4:
|Air and Water emissions from Malpom plant|
• Significant greenhouse gas emissions. Deforestation, mainly in tropical areas, accounts for up to one-third of total anthropogenic CO2 emissions.
• Habitat destruction, leading to the demise or critically endangered species (e.g. the Sumatran tiger, the Asian rhinoceros, and the Sumatran Orangutan.)
• Reduced biodiversity, including damage to biodiversity hotspots.
• Destruction of cash crops, such as fruit and rubber trees in Sawawak, Saban and Kalimantan and Borneo, that belong to indigenous peoples (the Dayak), despite their frequent objections.
Driving through the Malaysia countryside it was impressive to see the amount of land planted in African palm. Indeed it seemed that every bit of land we saw was dedicated to one of four uses: African palm, rice cultivation, housing, or industrial development.
|Rice fields near the Serba Wangi milling plant|
|Demonstrating rice milling at Serva Wangi plant|
Our afternoon visit to the Serba Wangi rice milling plant was less interesting, as we were not allowed to tour the plant itself (due to trade secrets, apparently), but we did learn about the processing of the rice itself (www.malaysiarice.com/). It also was fascinating to drive through endless fields of rice being cultivated, where they use irrigation ditches to drain the excess water off the fields, rather than irrigate them! (coming from water-challenged Montana this was hard to imagine).
|Malaysian dessert: Ice Kachang!|
|New Highrise Luxury Condos in northeast Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia|