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Why should we restrict an economy from taking advantage of its natural resources? Doesn’t palm oil bring much needed revenue to poor communities?

The Federal Land Development Agency (FELDA) is one of the world’s largest oil palm companies. It was founded in 1956 by the Malaysian Government to help relieve poverty among the landless. Even so, 85% of FELDA’s work force is composed of migrant workers (EIA, 2015). How does supplying most of FELDA’s work force with people from outside Malaysia, many of whom are trafficked, relieve poverty among the landless? Trafficked labor is supplied to plantations through contractors. This is how companies evade responsibility. Local populations are more expensive than those who are trafficked. Confiscation of passports, lack of compensation for on the job injuries, 10 to 12-hour work days, working 7 days per week and being paid less than minimum wage, if at all, are all illegal practices yet go unchecked among the trafficked population.

The children of these workers aren’t recognized by the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia. They are essentially country-less nomads with no protected rights to education or basic welfare. If the palm plantation doesn’t provide schools or healthcare, the only option available to these children is to join their parent(s) and work on the plantation. The US Department of Labor lists palm oil from Indonesia as being produced with child labor and palm oil coming from Malaysia as being produced by child and forced labor. This is a growing population of poor youth with few, if any, options in a region where extremist groups exist.

Local communities, like the Dayak or Muara Tae, utilize the rain forest for food, medicine and shelter. They typically make their living as farmers. Even though these groups are recognized to have rights to the land on which they live and farm, the local governments don’t intervene in land disputes between local communities and palm plantations. The RSPO Standard commits to protecting land rights yet complaints typically go unresolved. The local people have no money or power to effectively defend their rights so their voices go unheard. The local communities of these regions are not benefiting from the oil palm trade. A typical outcome is loss of land rights for current and future generations, soil erosion, silt and fertilizer run off into waterways and loss of forest resources.