Tapping palm oil without tapping out rainforests

Traveling in Borneo for Lonely Planet, I’ve seen firsthand how palm oil plantations can distort and destroy rainforests. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Last month, palm oil producers and consumers, scientists, investors, environmental advocates, and development groups gathered for the International Conference on Oil Palm and Environment (ICOPE) to try to better meet the challenges facing the industry as demand for palm oil and palm oil development grow. As I wrote in Asia Times, what matters isn’t what people say at these conferences but what happens afterward. Last week produced a troubling sign: an agreement by top producers Indonesia and Malaysia to jointly defend palm oil’s record. Malaysia’s palm oil producers have long dismissed any criticism of their industry with the vehemence and veracity of the 20th century US tobacco industry.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

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