LAHAD DATU, Malaysia —
According to a new study, oil palm plantations over the past two decades have cleared about 6,200 square miles of primary andlogged forested lands. Palm oil deforestation and hunting have combined to cut Bornean orangutan populations down to 54,000, half the total of the 1980s, according to environmental groups. At this rate, some predict the iconic animal could be extinct within a matter of years.
Borneo started losing its rain forest cover in the 1960s when the Malaysian government pushed the expansion of oil palms to complement rubber tree growth. Migrant workers traveled in droves from Indonesia and the Philippines to work on the plantations being carved out of the backcountry.
Palm oil has since evolved into Malaysia's most lucrative crop. In 2011, the export of palm oil and palm-based products netted $27 billion — a five-fold increase over the past decade — thanks to brisk trade with China, Pakistan, the European Union, Indiaand the United States, which imported record levels for the year.
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The transformation of Lahad Datu is emblematic of the boom going on in Malaysia's Sabah province, which accounts for about a quarter of Borneo's land area. The local population has doubled over the past 15 years. American fast food chains and other new businesses have arrived. And real estate prices are soaring in what has been dubbed "Palm City."
On the southern edge of town, lines of tanker trucks deliver crude palm oil to a sprawling, state-owned refinery complex where smokestacks belch into the night. Fresh lots have been set aside for prospective investors, and officials hope a deep-water port under construction nearby will position the region to be a top exporter of biodiesel fuel.
Longtime residents who recall a time when street crime and power failures were a fact of life boast their children are coming back to the city to start businesses and profit from the boom. "The quality of life here has improved tremendously," Tammay Bin Inton, 58, a community leader, said as he joked with friends at a popular coffee shop.