The Price of Palm Oil, Part 2

Like any human problem as large in scale as palm-oil driven deforesation, finding a solution that sticks requires patience and an appreciation for nuance. “It’s not about saying you shouldn’t develop or convert a piece of land. There’s obviously a lot of economic value in starting a business or having a successful plantation or farm.” This is Allison White, an EcoHealth Alliance scientist studying the disease economics of land-use change.

Trawler in early morning. Photo: Jonathan Goley

Since the 1960s, quality of life has changed for the better for many Malaysians. Unemployment has dropped while average household income and education have risen. These developments are thanks in part to agricultural and educational reforms. But they can also be attributed to the introduction of palm oil into the nation’s economy. “There is a certain amount of development that is really beneficial and healthy,” says Allison. As far as oils go, palm oil is remarkably efficient—it requires less land, less fertilizer, and less water than either soy bean or rapeseed to produce an equivalent yield. “It’s so vast. It’s in food products and hygiene products. But it’s also in things like hydraulic brake fluid. So it’s not really feasible to say ‘alright we’ll just stop.’”

A ferry pulls a truck transporting bushels of palm fruit. Photo: Jonathan Goley

What is feasible is for the people of Malaysia to begin factoring in the real costs of forest destruction when making development decisions. “Everyone cares about people being healthy and the planet being relatively healthy. That’s not as hard a sell as people say. However, it’s very easy for ecosystem service value and health values to get lost. People just don’t think about it. It doesn’t get counted,” says Allison. This is why she and her colleagues at EcoHealth Alliance have designed an economic model to illustrate what forests are worth when left undeveloped.

Turn of a river skirts a palm plantation. Photo: Jonathan Goley

While the idea that natural systems provide us with crucial services is older than Plato’s observations on the soil erosion and disease caused by deforestation around Athens, it is only recently that people like Allison, Erica, and Carlos have been trying to pin a concrete dollar value on the disease prevention services a forest provides. Cutting down forests doesn’t just throw animals carrying potential zoonoses into contact with people. It also increases the number of mosquitos carrying diseases like malaria and dengue for a host of still somewhat vague reasons. Where trees once gave shade, sunlight now reaches the forest floor, warming pools of standing water created by a lack of roots. These lukewarm pools of water provide ideal breeding grounds for mosquito larvae. For reasons that are not yet fully understood, a study in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene found that one species which carried malaria in a deforested area of Peru was very different from its ‘cousins’ in areas of intact forests; it bit 278 times more frequently.Connections like these are what EcoHealth Alliance is trying to understand; it is very possible there are similar dynamics at work in Malaysia. 

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