The human cost of palm oil production in Myanmar

Aggressive expansion of plantations enacted in southern provinces largely ignoring environment and workers' rights.

| | Business & Economy, Myanmar, Human Rights, Asia

Kawthaung, Myanmar - In 1999, when Myanmar was ruled by a repressive military regime, the government laid out a plan for development which included an aggressive expansion of palm oil in its southern provinces.

Since then, 44 large-scale palm oil companies have transformed 350,000 hectares of pristine jungle into a series of plantations.

Although the inception of the palm oil sector in Myanmar has provided regular jobs to unskilled labourers seeking regular employment and is increasing the internal supply of cooking oil within the country, the industry at large is being criticised on a number of fronts.

Environmentalists decry the ecological devastation and habitat loss associated with clear cutting rainforest and implementing a monoculture system of palm oil.

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In addition, migrant workers from other parts of the country comprise the majority of the workforce on these plantations. And many of these men and women tell stories of the difficulties they have faced working on the plantations, from receiving no income while clearing the thick forests, to having months worth of wages withheld.

There is a lack of proper educational and health resources, and inadequate living facilities, workers say, adding that current wages are so low that they cannot return to their home village.

Moreover, many oil palm plantations were built in areas where ethnic groups were displaced due to the decades-long civil war that still persists today.

Companies and individuals opportunistically seized the village lands - often illegally. The now internally displaced groups have returned to their villages only to find them converted into plantations.

Companies have gone so far as to sue some of these villagers, putting them in a legal quagmire as they fight these illegal land grabs.

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