by Rob Lewis

Continuing our former colleague’s energy-saving observations while cycling around the world

Cycling through Malaysia was a mixed bag. Whilst the scenery was often beautiful and the people among the friendliest I have come across in Asia, mile after mile of palm tree plantations can tend to get a little boring after a while.

But more than that, it’s not just for the aesthetic pleasure of cyclists and other road users that the plantations are a problem; even though palm trees are a natural phenomenon, the plantations are having significant impacts on the natural world.

Malaysia is now the second largest exporter of palm oil (after Indonesia), producing 17.7 million tonnes of the stuff in 2008. Most of this is used for cooking, particularly processed foods. However, with high targets around the world for carbon reduction in the transport sector, there is now increasing demand for palm oil by biofuel manufacturers.

This means that 4,500,000 hectares of Malaysia is now planted with palm trees, where beautiful rainforest used to be. That’s a whopping 40 per cent of the country’s total land area.

The impacts on biodiversity are already being felt. For example, in Sabah, much of the natural habitat of the orangutan has been destroyed by palm plantations – and it’s hard to say if they are run sustainably nor not. This has given rise to international alarm among organisations like the United Nations Environment Programme and Friends of the Earth, who estimate that this beautiful animal could be extinct within 12 years if the expansion continues – proof that ‘bio’ doesn’t always mean ‘green’.

There’s something to think about next time you pop open a pack of crisps.