The palm oil sector may be set for a take-off in southern Myanmar, but experts are divided on whether the controversial crop can be sustainable in the long term.

Palm oil has become one of the world’s most ubiquitous commodities, used to make for everything from shampoo to biodiesel to sugar candies. The World Wildlife Fund says it is the most widely used vegetable oil on the planet, comprising 65 percent of all vegetable oil traded internationally.

Yet there are only a few areas in the world with the right growing conditions for the crop. Some 85pc of international production is in Malaysia and Indonesia, but Myanmar’s Tanintharyi Region also boasts the right growing conditions and is increasingly drawing interest as a place to produce the commodity.

Earlier this month, representatives from the Chamber of Commerce sat down with INGOs and palm oil industry leaders to discuss expanding the sector in line with sustainable, international standards.

It is possible to create a large-scale palm oil sector that “is legal, environmentally appropriate, socially acceptable and profitable”, said Darrell Weber, secretary general of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry group, during his keynote speech at the event.

He recommended the government adopt his organisation’s guidelines as they look to expand their plantations in Tanintharyi region.

However, some environmentalists say that the idea of sustainable palm oil plantations, both socially and ecologically, is “a farce”. Pointing to examples both in Myanmar and across Southeast Asia, they argue that any profit from the plantations is eventually offset by damage to local communities.

“There’s a lot of talk about a sustainable model, but it’s just a myth,” said U Win Myo Thu, founder of the environmental NGO Ecodev. “In the long run there will always be more harmful effects.”

As U Win Myo Thu and several other experts pointed out, clearing large swaths of tropical forest – even forests degraded by logging – to produce a single crop inevitably causes massive drops in biodiversity, with attendant ecological problems quick to follow.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, palm oil production has been directly linked to record levels of air pollution and destroying the habitats of endangered species like the orangutan.

“What’s happening now in Myanmar is that a lot of companies are coming in and they’re basically copying the same system that’s been going around Malaysia and Indonesia,” said Oliver Pye, a professor of Southeast Asian Studies on the University of Bonn.

Under this system, according to Mr Pye, large corporations are free to expand and “[they] don’t have to pay the environmental costs they incur”.

In addition, he claimed that in both nations, the RSPO has stood in the way of stronger regulations from the national government.

The RSPO could not be reached for comment last week.

Beyond ecology, experts also say that expanding Myanmar’s palm oil sector would likely expand the corruption that has defined the industry for decades.

Speaking to The Myanmar Times last week, Kevin Woods, a Yangon-based researcher with the INGO Forest Trends, said that much of the land awarded to large corporations for palm oil plantations in Tanintharyi were in fact taken from civilians during the Tatmadaw’s offensive against the KNU in the 1990s.

“This dramatic history clearly indicates that any concept of ‘sustainability’ of oil palm in Tanintharyi is a farce, as the land from which oil palm is being cultivated was stolen by the military and led to thousands being forcibly resettled under duress without any compensation,” he said.

However, other environmentalists stand by both the RSPO and the idea of sustainable palm oil.

“The social and environmental impacts of the plantation sector, particularly palm oil, have drawn criticism across Southeast Asia,” said Frank Momberg, the program director of Flora and Fauna International’s Myanmar office, which helped organise the meeting.“The introduction and promotion of sustainable practices in plantation development can help maximise economic, social and environmental benefits.”

Speaking to The Myanmar Times last week, Mr Momberg said that that FFI had identified forests in Tanintharyi that could be converted to palm plantations with minimal damage to the surrounding environment, and that if local communities are properly consulted during construction “the development of sustainable palm oil can contribute to the reduction of social conflicts”.

U Zaw Win, deputy director-general of the Forests Department, said that any expansion of palm plantations would indeed be aligned with sustainable practices outlined by the RSPO, and would only come after a full consultation with local communities and other stakeholders.

On this point at least, U Win Myo Thu agreed with the government’s stance. “We must create informed decision-making for local communities, find out the effects and tell the story to the public and let the public make a choice – because every approach may have its advantages and disadvantages.”