How is Malaysia's agricultural development

Malaysia is now one of the largest palm oil producers in the world and agriculture was an important component of economic growth in the past. How this came about and what successes, failures, problems, opportunities and effects this is associated with is explained below.

Agriculture played a subordinate role in Malaysia before the colonial era. Pre-colonial agriculture was characterized by periodic deforestation. Rice was cultivated primarily in a subsistence-oriented manner in swamp areas or along urban rivers (Sundaram et al. 2004, 64; Keßler 1990, 51). Due to the high natural deposits of raw materials in the form of tin, the mining expanded and with it the demand for food increased, consequently further crops were quickly grown (Lees 2017, 15).

Chinese farmers were growing sugar cane in Penang as early as 1810. For this purpose, muddy plains were turned into usable land. The Europeans followed the example in 1846 and cultivated land in Perak and expanded cultivation via Malacca to Singapore. Drainage ditches were built and the land was divided into rectangular, homogeneous fields (Lees 2017, 30). The country's sparsely populated population and the low prices made a rapid expansion of agriculture in Malaysia possible, but this is also one of the reasons why workers from neighboring countries still often come to Malaysia to work in agriculture to this day. Colonial policy ensured that export products remained in British hands and controlled that Malaysian farmers only grew rice and other food crops. British control of Malaysia went hand in hand with rapid economic development. Trade and production rose rapidly, and transport routes were improved under the supervision of the British Empire (Lees 2017, 19).

With the expansion of the automotive industry at the end of the 19th century, the demand for rubber exceeded supply for the first time, and prices rose sharply as a result (Lees 2017, 173). In Malaysia, the agricultural land was increasingly geared towards the cultivation of rubber, while traditional crops such as coffee, sugar, pepper and rice lost their importance. From then on, an industrialized, export-oriented agriculture with monocultural cultivation was operated (Lees 2017, 171). Between 1900 and 1940 rubber cultivation literally exploded. About 50% of the area under cultivation at that time was used for growing rubber. From 1930 Malaysia was the world's largest supplier of rubber (Lees 2017, 174). The colonial government promoted rubber cultivation with cheap loans to buy land for cultivation (Kenney-Lazar 2019, 69). A number of agricultural policies were created for rubber by the colonial government. Examples are flexible export taxes and the establishment of research and development facilities for rubber (Fold, Whitfield 2012, 22). The cultivation of rubber led to extensive deforestation to make room for cultivation. In the first quarter of the 20th century, over half a million hectares of land were planted with rubber (Sundaram et al. 2004, 27). However, due to scientific and technical breakthroughs with synthetic rubber, rubber cultivation increasingly struggled from the 1960s onwards (Sundaram et al. 2004, 65; Richter 2009, 2; Fold, Whitfield 2012, 11). The Federal Land Devlopment Authority (FELDA) is a Malaysian government agency that was founded in 1956 to relocate the rural poor population in order to grow oil palms or rubber as small owners and to promote rural areas (Kenney-Lazar 2019, 71f.). The smallholders were allocated an area between 4 and 5.7 hectares and a house was made available on the site (Fold, Whitfield 2012, 11).
The focus on diversification began in the 1960s and 70s. The price of rubber was in free fall (Fold, Whitfield 2012, 37). As a result, new planting loans were granted and research and development facilities were established to build up the palm oil industry (Fold, Whitfield 2012, 11; 37). From 1971 to 1985 a total of 1.3 million hectares of soil was added to the agricultural sector (Keßler 1990, 5). At the beginning of the 1980s, the profit of palm oil exceeded that of rubber for the first time (Sundaram et al. 2004). Today FELDA is one of the largest palm oil producers in the world. The global market for palm oil is currently estimated at around 55 billion euros. According to the government, 74% of Malaysia's agricultural area is used for palm oil production (Stam 2020).

With a cultivation area of ​​around 6 million hectares, the oil palm is currently the most important raw material plant in Malaysia (see fig.). The reason for this is the extraordinary use of space over other vegetable oils. The productivity per hectare of oil palms is about 27 times better than that of soy. The oil palm is the most productive and most economical oil crop in terms of land use, and soy and coconut palms also grow in regions with similar ecological sensitivity (Abdullah et al. 2009, Johari et al. 2015, Noleppa, Cartsburg 2016, 6). Palm oil cultivation takes up less than 5% of the world's agricultural land, but makes up a third of the total global market share of vegetable oils (Umar et al. 2013, 109). Every second fatty consumer product - from skin creams to spreads to biodiesel - contains palm oil (ISCC 2018).

Malaysia has the highest rate of deforestation in the world with losses of an estimated 14.4% of all forest vegetation (Johari et al. 2015, 259). From a biological point of view, Malaysia's old forests are among the richest in the world and provide habitat for many endangered species (Abdullah et al. 2009, 5446). The palm oil industry is identified as responsible for clearing these forests. Political pressure has been increasing since the early 2000s. The allegation is that the plantations are responsible for high carbon dioxide emissions by displacing carbon-rich environments such as primary forest areas and bogs and replacing them with monoculture plantations with lower absorption capacity (Kenney-Lazar 2019, 76). Since then, Malaysia has been striving for more sustainable development. Today, the country practices partially sustainable forest management due to its international obligation from the treaty conference in Copenhagen 2009 to preserve 50% of its land as forest area (Umar et al. 2013, 109). Forest cover even increased from 56.4% in 2010 to 61% in 2014 (ibid.). The Malaysian government also decided in March 2019 to limit the expansion of the oil palm plantations to 6.5 million hectares. The government will also restrict the development of peat and bog areas (Stam 2020). In addition, permanent protection forest areas are designated and mangrove forests are reforested (MP11, 6-8).


Due to the discussion about an EU ban on palm oil in the transport sector, mainly for the production of biofuels, the Malaysian government has criticized it. "The EU has chosen to ignore our continued efforts around the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, our national pledges to preserve forests, sustainable palm oil production, and especially our efforts to fight poverty, especially in rural areas." According to the government (Hein 2019). It goes on to say that palm oil should not be denounced as the only culprit for deforestation and other environmental problems: "Does it make sense to pick one crop and say that we are now making an example because of deforestation and working conditions, while we are other crops - like Eg soy, which is grown on cleared land in the Amazon - ignore? ”(Stam 2020). Replacing one oil for another will not solve the problem, it will only relocate it. In the course of these statements, the topic of agricultural protectionism was discussed in detail both in the seminar and on the excursion.

In conclusion, it can be said that colonial policy had a major influence on agricultural development in Malaysia and that some policies had proven their worth and consequently reappeared in a modified form in later periods. The favorable loans for land and new planting, research and development facilities and FELDA should be emphasized here. A great advantage for Malaysia with its export-oriented agriculture was and is the extensive unused land area and the climate. Even if the palm oil industry is rightly criticized when it comes to sustainability, loss of biodiversity and deforestation, it must be noted that the oil palm is the most productive and most economical oil crop in terms of land use. In addition, compared to other vegetable oils, palm oil can be used very versatile.