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The Price of Palm Oil, Part 3

EcoHealth Alliance works on a number of projects in Malaysia which focus on the disease costs associated with palm-oil driven deforestation. The work is based on the assumption that deforestation increases the likelihood people will come in contact with animals and in turn contract the diseases they carry. This work has resulted in the creation of a ‘toolkit’—a guided presentation and workshop that looks at the pros and cons of development by taking into account the cost of land-use change and the value of natural services. That includes disease mitigation. Coordinating the implementation of this toolkit in Malaysia is Jimmy Lee. A man who wears many hats, he splits his time as an EcoHealth Alliance research officer while simultaneously working with the Sabah Wildlife Department. He and other wildlife rangers regularly sample bats, civet cats, and other wild mammals to find novel diseases. This groundwork is essential in providing the raw data needed to evaluate what forested land is worth.

Jimmy Lee conducts a demonstration at Kampung Kalampun . Photo: Jonathan Goley.

Most people are aware there is real value in keeping natural environments intact, but when they’re confronted with hard numbers they are often unable to argue their position with numbers of their own. So who is the audience? “Palm-oil plantation workers are definitely an audience, policy makers. People who manage or run plantations. They care a lot about their work force, and genuinely want them to be healthy. But there is, of course, also an economic cost to people being sick all the time,” says Allison White, another researcher at EcoHealth Alliance.

Suggested rates of land conversion in Sabah. Graph: Allison White.

Creating a model that reflects these costs, and lays out where forest should be left intact is one thing. Applying it is another matter altogether. “I’m never going to go into a place and have more knowledge than someone who lives there. That people can think that way isn’t necessarily hubris. It’s more of a disconnect.” And that lack of understanding isn’t just limited to scenarios like this. We seem to find these disconnects everywhere we look when talking about palm oil. Deforestation is often unwittingly abetted by investors at the other end of the world. At the same time, anti-deforestation groups calling for an end to palm oil don’t always acknowledge the increase in well-being it has brought the people of Malaysia, Indonesia, Central America, and West Africa.

Bushels of palm fruit await processing. Photo: Jonathan Goley.

To avoid these gaps in knowledge, sessions with local communities and towns are thought of more as facilitations than lectures. Communities are given basic frameworks to think about problems of disease and deforestation, but it’s up to them to flesh those frameworks out with the social, ecological, and epidemiological details particular to where they live. Given what they know about how people in their community seek medical attention or collect water, the results of the workshop change to accommodate those differences.

Allison White preparing for toolkit facilitation. Photo: Jonathan Goley.

“That’s the only way conservation efforts really get done. The only way they work is by involving local people. They’re the ones that are affected by local problems,” says Erica. “Going out there doing capacity building, communicating the knowledge and in the end passing the torch on to them, and hoping others continue down this path.” Allison’s first day in-country is spent workshopping with health and wildlife workers from a number of Bornean communities. The following day, Jimmy and Allison oversee the next step in this process at a nearby village, where some of those same workers present the toolkit to the residents of Kampung Kalampun. Arrayed around an open air room is a remarkably varied audience, from toddlers to the elderly. Even a dog comes in to cool itself on the cement floor.  

Women discuss local health. Photo: Jonathan Goley.

Throughout the day, the gathered community breaks out in smaller groups to discuss the nature of disease and development around them. Women make up a sizeable portion of the audience. The toolkit was designed to take into account differences in the daily lives of both genders and the health ramifications those differences entail. To think about those differences hypothetically—if work in the trees were done by men, while women and children worked on the ground, would their exposure to disease change? Allison continues along this hypothetical line: “for exposure to something like pesticides, that might be different. If men are working closer to forest edge and women are working further in the center of the plantation, then they’d be more likely to come in contact with primates and other wild animals;” and perhaps more likely to catch the diseases those animals may carry. 

Male orangutan at the Sabah Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Jonathan Goley.

After a long four days of training and travel, Allison and Jimmy wrap up their work with the toolkit training. Driving back to Kota Kinabalu, their car brakes so an orangutan can cross the street. This image—an orangutan walking—has become a poignant symbol of the recent destruction in Malaysia. The enigmatic apes spend most of their lives in trees, but as those trees disappear, they’re forced to the ground in search of food. Travelling on foot like this carries its own risks, namely a higher chance of contracting tuberculosis and melioidosis. Those diseases too can be spread to people—perhaps the very men working at the fringes of a palm plantation.

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