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Malaysia’s economic development has for the most part been one of Southeast Asia’s development miracles. Over a period of 40-50 years, Malaysia has become an upper middle-income country, and is likely to be a fully industrialised country before the end of the decade.

How did this happen? It has been a slow and steady process that has involved the diversification of the economy away from subsistence agriculture and export agriculture into value-added processing, manufacturing and services.

But the basis of this – and what has set Malaysia apart from many other countries that were, and still are, reliant upon plantation-based agriculture – has been the growing involvement of smallholders.

They have been granted land with access to transportation links or which is close to urban areas. The farmers have been able to use their land as collateral, grow cash crops and pass wealth to the next generation.

There are parts of Malaysia — particularly in Sabah and Sarawak – where this development story is still unfolding. But the importance of this story remains lost on many, particularly in the West.


Shocking proposal in Wetlands report

A recent example is that of a new report by Wetlands International, which effectively argues that ‘sustainable’ livelihoods can be eked out of natural forest landscapes, and that this does not require any industrial processes such as timber harvesting or plantation agriculture.

This story sits underneath warnings about the possible environmental damage from agriculture around the Rajang Delta in Sarawak. The technical basis of the work on the delta is impressive and some if its less extreme projections on soil subsidence are probably reasonably accurate.

But its strongest recommendation – that agriculture should simply be prevented around this area and that local people should effectively revert to a subsistence existence – is, frankly, shocking.

Deltas are delicate environments. The people in Florida have struggled with the environmental changes that have taken place around the Everglades from sugar production and other agriculture, with some commentators labelling it as the biggest environmental tragedy that has befallen the US.

At the same time, the Nile Delta, the Mekong Delta and the San Joaquin Delta have been a rich source of economic development for many years for the people of Egypt, Southeast Asia and California respectively.

In most situations where economic activity – particularly agriculture – has developed in delta areas, the two have managed to find a balance and co-exist. Obviously in periods of high growth, that balance will become uneven. That has clearly become the case with the Florida Everglades; however, more careful environmental management appears to be restoring the equilibrium.

A more extreme case is the low-lying areas of the Netherlands that have been reclaimed for agriculture over 500 years. These require constant pumping, and the former natural environment is virtually non-existent.


Balance is possible

What this comes down to is an argument over ideals. Clearly, environmentalists like Wetlands International, and the Norwegian Government which has made their work possible, consider that the Rajang Delta should remain in pristine condition and that agriculture should take place elsewhere. This idealistic position is simply not possible; nor is it realistic.

Wetlands has indirectly pointed the finger at palm oil. The truth is that, if palm oil were banned worldwide tomorrow, farmers would be planting something else in the same spot. Moreover, it is not possible for anyone to expect a society to regress and reverse its economic development.

The examples provided here indicate that balance is possible, given time.
Malaysians value their environment just as much as Western campaigners. But it is Malaysians who have to confront the realities of slower economic development every day and, consequently, have to strive to gain higher living standards.

To imply that this is something that Malaysians can live without is simply immoral.


Dr Yusof Basiron is CEO of MPOC

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