Palm oil, Malaysia’s golden crop, is being credited with helping peninsular Malaysia’s aboriginal population, the Orang Asli, live a better life. The Temiar tribe is one Malaysia’s larger native groups. Oil palm cultivation has boosted their standard of living and improved the health of their environment. This independent study of palm oil and indigenous people revealed the uplifting news.
The Temiar tribe once existed by gathering and selling forest products such as bamboo, herbs and durian, a native fruit. They also farmed, but their shifting cultivation practice – a farming technique where land is cleared for farming, often by fire, then left to regenerate – was banned due to environmental damage, including landslides and diminished water quality. To protect the environment, each family was offered seven acres of land to cultivate either oil palm or rubber. Most families chose oil palm because it can generate a higher income, up to RM1500 per month. Each family also received two acres for cocoa cultivation.
Today, 60 percent of the Temiar tribe supports their families through agricultural activities, mainly oil palm cultivation. The oil palm plantations provide them a stable income, as the tribe no longer depends on seasonal forest products or dangerous agricultural practices. With the increased income, tribal families can even hire workers to help tend their plantations.
Many families have also plant herbs, tapioca, ginger and petai (stink bean) among their oil palm trees. This practice enhances biodiversity by encouraging a greater variety of animal species to enter the area to forage for food or find shelter. The study also reports that pressures on the existing wildlife have diminished because the Temier people no longer hunt for wild meat in the rainforest. The report states Malayan tigers and Asian elephants have been seen in the area, as well as more than 150 species of birds.
The Temiar’s story is just one of many documenting how oil palm cultivation has helped Malaysia’s indigenous people, as well as the country’s wildlife and environment.