The Sabah State government officially opened the biofuels and palm oil processing hub called the Palm Oil Industrial Cluster (POIC) [official website] in Malaysia's largest palm producing province (Sabah is located on the island of Borneo).
The goals of the cluster can be summarized as follows:
- creating a regional bioprocessing zone where locally produced biomass and oils, and those imported from neighboring countries (especially the Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia), are turned into liquid biofuels, solid biopellets, biogas, biomaterials (such as bioplastics) and green specialty chemicals.
- becoming the main South-East Asian biofuels exporting zone
- attracting foreign investment in plantation and processing industries to the State
- concentrating research and development efforts in biotechnology and plantation research; cooperation with universities to become a local knowledge hub
- generating jobs, an estimated 22,000 of them by 2010
The project also entails a range of infrastructure works:
- the construction of ports and harbors to facilitate the export of finished bioenergy products
- the expansion and optimisation of local transport networks (rail and road)
- improvement of the existing energy infrastructure in order to provide ample energy to the new industrial zone (this energy infrastructure itself will be mainly biomass based)
POIC Sabah Sdn Bhd's chairman Datuk Dr Ewon Ebin says the project has received a warm welcome from foreign investors: "After having gone around Malaysia and many other countries in the last 10 months, we came across many investors in the United Kingdom, China, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong, among others, who showed keen interest in coming to invest," Dr Ewon said.
Indeed, the first major investment has already been made: a British-Malaysian joint-venture (Kuala Lumpur-based Zurex Corporation Sdn Bhd and United Kingdom-based Biofutures International PLC) has brought in RM100 million (€ 21.5 / US$ 27.2 million) to set up a 200,000 metric tonnes per year palm oil biodiesel plant.
Palm oil is the State's largest export earner, bringing in some 38% of all revenues, more than petroleum. Currently Sabah is responsible for some 30% of Malaysia's palm oil production (Malaysia itself being the world's largest producer): production stands at 14 million metric tonnes per annum, coming from 1,135,101 hectares of plantation.
But Sabah is also Malaysia's poorest state, with a large pool of low-skilled laborers and landless seasonal workers. The Biofuels Cluster may bring economic benefits but this does not automatically imply that the social situation will improve (since the cluster especially requires high-skilled labor).
Obviously, critics also point to the fact that this biofuel centre - reliant on (ever expanding) monocultures - may threaten the rich biodiversity of the state:
ethanol :: biodiesel :: biobutanol :: biomass :: bioenergy :: biofuels :: energy :: sustainability :: Africa ::
Already two Sabah forest reserves, to be bequeathed as Malaysia’s biodiversity gift to the world by the end of 2007, are set to be logged in a month or two – endangering countless species of plants and wildlife. A race against time is underway to log the Malua and Ulu Segama forest reserves, covering a total of 236,825ha, which is three times the size of Singapore, before the deadline. The state-owned Yayasan Sabah holds logging rights in the forest reserves and recently appointed at least three companies to log in the area. Even though this development is not directly related to the POIC, pressure on the environment will certainly rise.
Palm Oil Industrial Cluster: official website.
Malaysian Palm Oil Board: official website.
Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil: official website.
Bernama, Malaysian National News Agency: Palm Oil Project Gets Good Response From Foreign Investors.
The Star: New industries in Sabah to provide jobs.