#8 from SE Asia 2011 — palm oil, rubber, and the world’s oldest forest
January 18th, 2011
I am now riding thru the very oldest rain forest on the planet. Biologists estimate that the tropical forest along the mountains of southern Thailand and Malaysia have existing continuously for 130 million years. No other forests on the planet come close to this in age. Both Malaysia and Thailand now have strong laws on paper protecting these forests. The locals for the most part sound serious about enforcing it. So what are the threats? Palm oil and rubber plantations.
While I was riding south, I got lost, again. I was using my compass to navigate across a mountainous area and I kept running onto dirt road with dead ends. Having to track back on hilly dirt roads on a bicycle can be very frustrating. It did not help that the locals could not understand my rudimentary Thai. I found myself in the midst of an immense rubber tree plantation that went on for at least 20 kms thru valleys and mountains. It was one continuous monoculture up and down the hillsides. i saw that they were expanding this rubber plantation. I saw no landmarks to help me get out of here. It was getting late in the day and it was looking more and more like I would have to bivouac in this plantation until dawn.
Finally a motorcyclist came by me. I waved him down, and he kindly led me out of the maze to a paved road. This mistake set me back 40 kms. When I came out of the rubber plantation. At the edge of the plantation, I could see that they were expanding it. With the price of oil going up, natural latex rubber is more competitive with synthetic rubber.
Then I found myself in the beginning of a palm oil plantation. Palm oil plantations are having a much more serious impact on tropical forests. A palm oil plantation can produce consistently about 4000 litres of oil per hectare (about 500 gallons of oil per acre).
The best oil grain in North America is canola oil, and one does well to produce 100 gallons of oil per acre with it. I should know these numbers well since I have been producing my own bio-diesel for the last 3 years.
Palm oil plantations can produce for 40 years and take considerably less maintenance than annual oil crops. One can make a good economic and energy case that, of all the plant oil crops, palm oil pays the best. In a way, it sounds ideal. And economically, it is. But oil palm plantations can grow in many of the marginal lands where ancient tropical forests now stand. Local peoples are now cutting these forests at a furious rate. Indonesia is the worst, but you can see it happening up north here. From the roads and air planes, you see every marginal piece of forest land being cut for palm oil. It appears that if the tropical forests are not on protected status AND guarded, they will be cut down.
Western environmentalists here are careful not to preach to the local people. If they did, the locals would quickly point out that the west have already cut down most of our forests in Europe and the USA. They will state that they have the right to develop their lands and increase their personal wealth. They strongly feel that economic growth is not just reserved for the western countries. One cannot argue with their perspective, other than to encourage as much conservation as possible, and hope that the impacts are not too great. And so goes the planet.
All along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Thailand I saw continuous shrimp farms. The Thais have cut up much of their coastal mangrove forests. Biologists have long stated that mangrove swamps are the breeding grounds for many marine species. This is happening around around the world. We will be seeing how this living experiment affects biodiversity in the future.
When I was at the Kuiburi National Park, the park rangers let me sleep in the elephant museum at night. So I slept on a mat next to all of the elephant skeletons, bones, and exhibits. Much later in the night, I got up and walked thru the museum in the moonlight. The ghosts of elephants past.