A Brief Walk in the Plantation

“I want to intern with the government” is not something that rolls off the tip of every Malaysian youth’s tongue. But that was exactly my intention in 2014. As a student back then, I was exposed to the challenges of academia and through some volunteer work, the trials and tribulations of working at a non-governmental organisation (NGO).

From that, I realised one thing: many policy decisions in Malaysia are made at the highest level of governance i.e. ministries through cabinet discussions. It was then that I stumbled across the Perdana Fellowship Programme. The programme gave youths a chance to intern with one of the nation’s top leaders and thus, experience top-down governance first-hand.

Once accepted into the programme, many of us Perdana Fellows (PFs) were anxious about our allocated ministry. This was because the minister-mentor and ministry could make or break the internship experience. Being a student of biology, it was only natural for me to eye a place in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (NRE).

 

The Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities (MPIC) in Putrajaya.

 

Plantation Allocation

The day came, and it was announced that I would be shadowing Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas in the Ministry of Plantation Industries and Commodities (MPIC). You could almost see the irony of a conservation-minded youth interning in a ministry in charge of plantations.

After all, oil palm and rubber plantations are often blamed for extensive deforestation and subsequent extinction of wildlife in the Southeast Asian region. Although it was not an ideal allocation, I decided that it was about time I confronted this perceived ‘monster’ head on.

From Day 1, I made it clear that I wanted to understand the plantation industries especially oil palm. What is the role of oil palm in Malaysia? Why is it the monoculture of choice? Could this ‘forest’ harbour any wildlife and subsequently contribute to conservation?

As PFs, we were attached to the minister’s office. Although we were all civil servants in the ministry, this division is separated from the others because it consisted of the minister’s personal and political aides. To explain this better, I always like to think of the office as a UFO on Earth. If the minister changes portfolio, the UFO (minister’s office) usually moves with him while Earth (the ministry) stays in intact.

Experiencing Oil Palm

Being Malaysian, oil palm is one of the issues you cannot run away from for it plays a dual role since its introduction as a cash crop in the 19th century. On one hand, it has propelled our country to the forefront of development in the region, while on the other, the 12th most biodiverse region in the world has suffered major losses in terms of forest area and species richness.

Through my interactions with members of the ministry and personal readings, I have learnt that oil palm can be considered a miracle fruit. In fact, it is the most efficient oilseed in the world, providing the highest oil yield per unit hectare compared to any other oilseed, 11 times higher than soybean, 10 times higher than sunflower and 7 times higher than canola.

However, the catch is that the oil palm itself is a perennial plant, taking about 7 years to mature. Perennial here means that it grows all year round, which is good for production but it also means that the land can not be converted for other purposes in that time. The fact that this plant will continue to be productive for 30 years also means that the oil palm plantation in your backyard will pretty much be a permanent feature.

It might seem a little gloomy for conservation, but it is true that every cloud does have a silver lining. Studies have shown that oil palm estates can harbour certain wildlife, albeit with a lower species richness. Worldwide, there has also been a concerted effort to make the oil palm industry more sustainable through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification.

RSPO is what economists call a market based solution to bad practices in oil palm plantations. Through RSPO, of which NGOs, GOs and big palm oil players are all members of, there is a standard to be followed with stringent auditing. Companies that purchase this oil can then choose RSPO certified producers, ultimately making sustainable practices the norm.

I admit that this might not be the solution to deforestation but it is a good effort in trying to balance the need to feed the world with sustainable farming practices. Personally, I have seen a good example of an RSPO certified plantation through a ministry site visit to United Plantations in Perak. There, the Chief Executive Director Dato’ Carl Bek-Nielson explained several practices from the use of biological control (introduction of natural predators to pests) to reduce pesticide use to the reuse of palm oil fibre as fuel for energy generation.

Perdana Fellows Overview

The beauty of the programme is that each fellowship experience is customised. Every single one of the selected PFs every year will have very different experiences. Despite that, we have come together to support each other through our experiences, shared knowledge gained and even debated on policies that are being implemented before our very eyes.

Regardless of individual experience within individual ministries, every PF comes out of the programme with 80-odd bright, young and ambitious batch mates, no, comrades. This is in addition to the growing population of Perdana Fellow Alumni who all have had the privilege of working in the highest echelons of government for at least 6 weeks.

John F. Kennedy once said: Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country. And after completing the Perdana Fellows Programme as an executive intern to Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas, I still can’t say that I have done anything significant for Malaysia. What I can say is that I understand how this country works a little bit better and look forward to contributing to its sustainable development in the future.

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