LAHAD DATU, Malaysia —
Nasrun Datuk Mansur, a state assemblyman and assistant to the Sabah chief minister, said the industry is "the catalyst for all types of business activities that are helping Lahad Datu develop very fast, and I believe it's true for the whole country."
But critics of the palm oil industry counter that the breakneck expansion of plantations into virgin tracts of Borneo's countryside is benefiting little more than a handful of major companies, which gain extra income from timber, at the expense of one of the world's most biologically diverse areas and the farmworkers who do the heavy lifting.
A joint study published last month by Stanford and Yale universities found that land-clearing operations for plantations in Borneo emitted more than 140 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2010 alone, equal to annual emissions from about 28 million vehicles.
"We may see tipping points in forest conversion where critical biophysical functions are disrupted, leaving the region increasingly vulnerable to droughts, fires and floods," project leader Lisa M. Curran, a professor of ecological anthropology at Stanford University, said in a statement.
Slash-and-burn agriculture accounts for 80 percent of Indonesia's carbon dioxide emissions, making it the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind the United States and China.
"It's a perfect storm of human rights abuses and social conflict on the one hand and the destruction of some of the most biologically diverse forests in the world on the other," said Laurel Sutherlin, communications director for the Rainforest Action Network, a San Francisco-based environmental organization. "Extraordinary ecosystems are becoming dead tree farms."
Indonesian officials have announced plans to convert about 18 million more hectares — an area the size of Missouri — into palm oil plantations by 2020. Malaysia wants to double the area under cultivation over the same period to drive development in its rural eastern provinces, where infrastructure and living standards lag far behind its wealthier, more industrialized western peninsula.