LAHAD DATU, Malaysia —
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Lost in the environmental debate is the plight of thousands of migrant workers — mostly from Indonesia — who remain the life's blood of Malaysian palm oil plantations. Some have labored in the country for more than 30 years. Yet the government does not provide education or health-care services to them and the estimated 36,000 children living on backcountry farms.
Leonary Marcus, 17, came with his parents from Indonesia as a young boy. He attended a learning center run by a local nonprofit organization, but without legal documents, he was ineligible for secondary school. For the past five years he has toiled on the plantations, earning about $7.50 a day.
"It's a hard life, but what choice do I have?" he said.
Without access to state schools, workers' children are destined to hard labor in the shadows, said Aegile Fernandez, director of Tenaganita, an organization that assists undocumented migrants in the country. She said it was the "duty of every government to look after every child on its soil — no questions asked."
The Malaysian government declined to comment on the issue.
In response to mounting pressure, leading palm oil producers have partnered with advocacy groups to form the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an association based in Zurich that aims to establish clear social and environmental safeguards for the industry.
Top consumer goods companies, such as Unilever and Nestle, are members, as well as agribusiness giant Cargill, the largest importer of palm oil to the United States.
But activists say there has been more talk than serious reform.
On a recent afternoon, Mappi Tabbo and his five children, ages 5 to 19, loaded a pickup truck with their day's haul of palm nuts.
Ten years after leaving Indonesia for a better-paying job, the 41-year-old still risks arrest, a penalty that exceeds a year's wagesand possible deportation if caught by police. He avoids town altogether.
Motlagh reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.