LAHAD DATU, Malaysia — Twenty-five years ago, Lahad Datu was just another sleepy port town on the fringe of Malaysian Borneo, frequented by traders, sea gypsies and the occasional pirate gang.
These days, big money is flowing into banks and construction projects that have multiplied in the city center, where a gaudy silver statue honors the cash crop that put the former backwater on the map: palm oil.
Long a preferred cooking ingredient in developing countries, palm oil is now in greater demand in Western markets because of its low price and long shelf life. Derived from the fruit of oil palm trees, it can now be found in more than half of all the products sold in U.S. supermarkets, from cookies to cosmetics. And its use is increasing as the commercial food industry phases out the use of trans fats to meet government-mandated labeling requirements.
The huge global appetite is yielding billions in revenue for Indonesia and Malaysia, the world's first- and second-largest producers of palm oil. But environmental and human rights activists warn that the boom is doing irreparable damage to rare biodiversity and accelerating the effects of global warming, with no concern for long-term social costs.
They add that indigenous people are being pushed off their ancestral land to make way for plantations staffed by tens of thousands of migrant workers, who are often denied health care and education services. Many families that have labored for decades still do not have the legal documents that would grant them and their children basic rights.
The laborers and their children "are invisible; they have no future. They just work and work and work," said Alison Neri, the director of a social welfare organization that assists Indonesian migrants in eastern Malaysia.
The toll is most acutely felt in Borneo, the Southeast Asian island shared by the two countries that's home to one of the oldest rain forests on Earth and humankind's closest relative, the orangutan.