Land transitions in peninsular Malaysia: From palmisation to urbanization

Aliyu Barau
Bayero University, Nigeria

For those who live and work in emerging economies, the social and ecological effects of urban sprawl and landscape fragmentation on agricultural and ecological landscapes are readily apparent. Malaysia provides an example of this phenomenon. Like many countries in Asia, Malaysia has undergone rapid urbanization, increasing from 26.5% in 1957, the year it gained independence, to 62% in 2000. (Masron et al., 2012).  For some decades, agricultural landscapes, particularly oil palm plantations, have become well-known drivers of environmental change in countries in Southeast Asia, especially in Malaysia.  However, the role of urbanization in changing the dominance of these plantations has not received adequate attention.  This article seeks to highlight how the influx of global capital and the demand for further urban development drives rapid landscape change within and around urban areas of Southeast Asia. Thus, the study demonstrates real world examples of rapid urbanization and its effects on environmental change in developing economies.   Indeed, the rapidly sprawling urban growth experienced between Singapore, Johor Bahru [the city that connects Malaysia to Singapore], and Kuala Lumpur can contribute further insights into how rapid urbanization reverses palmisation.

What is ‘palmisation’?

The term palmisation was [arguably] coined by Grgurevic (2007) who used it to describe an excessive planting of Chamaerops palm trees (Chamaerops humilis L) along the Croatian Adriatic coast. Barau and Ludin (2012) use the same term to describe the overwhelming dominance of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) plantations in Peninsular Malaysia. Many environmental activists and conservation groups are opposed to this phenomenon as it allegedly acts as a catalyst for biodiversity loss in many parts of Southeast Asia.  My claim is that palmisation is giving way to a low-density urbanization fueled by the influx of domestic and global capital. This kind of urban landscape transition has direct connections to issues such as climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, globalization and social inequality.

Observations: Landscapes and urban transitions

From 2012-2015, I conducted field observations (utilizing road markers as points of reference) along Malaysia’s busy North-South Expressway, specifically between the Skudai tollgate in Johor and Sungai Besi tollgate in Kuala Lumpur, a span of road roughly 350 kilometers in length.  This highway passes through many towns and villages of different sizes; however, the dominant landscape feature is the oil palm plantation. Hence, the area can be regarded as the epicenter of palmisation in Peninsular Malaysia. Moving from south to north along Peninsular Malaysia, we observed persistent changes in landscape patterns that have significant social and ecological implications. Our observations reveal that oil palm plantations are actually giving way to small, fragmented patterns of urban growth.  Map 1 (NEW)One of the main features of these emerging built-up areas is the speed at which they are converting oil palm plantations. It only takes a few months to clear these plantations and another six months to a year to replace them with human infrastructures.

At road marker 270, one can easily see Seremban-2, a new satellite city built in less than two years. There many more of these kinds of new cities and estates designed and developed to accommodate high-income individuals – both Malaysians and foreigners. These exotic estates are designed to include malls, gated residential areas, golf courses, green areas, cinemas etc. The cost of these houses vary between US$100,000 – US$1,000,000. Plantation corporations such as Sime Darby are spearheading this transition from palmisation to low-density urbanization as is evident at road marker 292, where a brand new settlement, called Southville City, has been built. These corporations are responding to the increasing expansion of the Malaysian property development sector due to local and foreign demands for houses for residential, commercial, industrial sector driven by capital influx. Similar projects can be easily spotted as one travels between Kuala and Johor Bahru. Most of these developments did not exist five years ago.

Foreign corporations are also involved in these transitions.  For instance, about 50 meters before the Skudai tollgate, a new factory run by an American corporation called Seagate can be found in the midst of an oil palm plantation. About 5 kilometers away from the same tollgate, the Johor Premium Outlets – an American-owned shopping area that covers 175,000 square feet, is located within an oil palm plantation owned by Genting Plantations. We believe that such isolated developments may be the nucleus of future urban development projects.

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Many activists and researchers view palmisation as the key driver of deforestation and ecological destruction. Comparatively speaking, however, this kind rapid, low-density urbanization exerts more pressure on landscapes and their ecosystem services and is more detrimental to environmental sustainability. Indeed, Singh and Bhagwat, (2013) argue that oil palm plantations harbor substantial amounts of species – mostly birds and reptiles. In addition, our observations indicate that plantations do not hinder stormwater runoff and help to reduce light and noise pollution in contrast to built-up areas.  Urbanization also increases net urban energy consumption and emissions and is likely to exacerbate the vulnerability of flood risks and other climate change related hazards.

The need for field-based research in global urban landscape change

Unfortunately, the dearth of data hampers the ability of researchers to sufficiently quantify the true extent of the effects of palmisation in Southeast Asia (Fitzherbert et al., 2008). Yet, some findings have contradicted the negative assumptions of palmisation and deforestation (Wicke et al., 2011). Thus, it is crucial to seek alternatives and/or complementary means of achieving a better understanding of landscape change transitions. In Europe, some landscape scientists believe that it is imperative to resort to path dependency and landscape biography in order to achieve an in-depth understanding of landscape change (Palang et al., 2011). Such social science concepts can help researchers to gain historical insights into landscape change dynamics.

There are many forecasts of future patterns complex urbanization and landscape change projected on the basis of demographic, land-use and land cover change data (Angel et al., 2011; Seto et al., 2013; McGranahan and Satterthwaite, 2014). Despite the increasing sophistication in data collection, a good understanding of this kind of complex urban environmental transitions would require researchers to observe, examine and explain their sustainability dimensions changes both physically and critically. Hence, the need to rely on real-time, field-based observations becomes clearer in this context. According to Martin et al. (2012), ecologists and urban landscape change experts often relegate fieldwork even though the impacts of urban landscape change extend to 75% of the global terrestrial areas. A good example of neglecting fieldwork is voiced by the British Ecological Society which is opposed to how Ofqual, the Office for Qualifications and Examinations Regulation of the UK’s Department for Education (DfE) has proposed to make fieldwork optional for the UK’s A-level Biology/Ecology courses (British Ecological Society, 2014). It is crucial for researchers and educators to reconsider role of field observations play in understanding and analyzing rapid urbanization and landscape change.


Dr. Aliyu Barau is faculty at Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria.  He is also a UGEC Project Associate.


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