A Pathogen in the Palms
As we have seen so far, COVID-19’s effects are far reaching. Thus, it is no surprise that this virulent virus is also shaking up the world of palm oil production.
With cases of the coronavirus in Malaysia and Indonesia steadily increasing each day, governments are beginning to enforce tighter restrictions of social distancing. In Malaysia for example, the state of Sabah (Malaysia's second largest state) has ordered for the closure of all palm oil plantations. Cultimating oil palm trees is known to be “labor intensive”, especially for vegetable oil. Other crops, such as rice, are not experiencing these temporary shutdowns, as rice is oftentimes grown in remote areas with little man power, therefore, posing less of a risk of contagion. Many speculate the closing of these plantations and a decrease in palm oil supply will lead to an increase in illegal deforestation across the state’s remaining natural areas to make way for clandestine palm oil plantations. Now it is just a matter of waiting to see the results of this catastrophe.
Forest protection is also experiencing major changes with the arrival of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia. With governments enacting stricter laws of social distancing in cities especially, many park rangers and local police are being directed to the highly populated areas where enforcement is needed. Meanwhile, forest conservation agencies are being enjoined from monitoring forests by statewide travel bans. This, compounded with a decreased presence of forest/local enforcement, sparks the fear that forests will shrink if no one is watching over them. However, many argue that satellites and drones would allow green agencies and governments to monitor the state of these natural expanses of land without even stepping a foot in the forest. Thus, COVID-19 will test not only our species, but also our technology.
The coronavirus has also made the logistics behind food production, transportation, and selling more difficult as nations enforce tighter trade restrictions while consumers purchase more and more processed food amid a fear of food shortages. We have yet to see any changes to the food on our shelves with the arrival of the virus; however, its story has become more complex and covert. Many question how companies are obtaining their raw goods with such restrictions to international trade. Palm oil especially is an enigma. If palm oil plantations are closing and food manufacturers, such as Nabisco, are maintaining their production of goods, where are they getting their palm oil? Many believe from illegal plantations. Although this hasn’t yet been proven, it is important that we are not naive enough to believe that fowl play is not occuring in the world of food production. Follow the money...
The coronavirus has the world in a state of turmoil. An increase in illegal palm oil production and related deforestation is but one of the likely casualties of this global crisis.