“And you may find yourself in another part of the world…” (David Byrne)

Palms are a key resource for anyone in a survival situation in the jungle – their uses are numerous – but in this video I look only at the palm as a quick and easy source of food.

For anyone interested in buying a lightweight parang similar to the one I use in this video, please contact Keong at Sepuh Crafts.

Although the fruit of some palms can be eaten (e.g. salak, bertam, coconuts) it is best not to try this unless you are confident of identifying the palm itself (as some are poisonous). The heart of palm is a safer option and is both easy to get at and a good source of carbohydrates.

The larger the palm tree, the bigger the heart of palm. However, the downside of harvesting the heart of palm is that the tree itself is killed. In the case of clumping palms (e.g. Nibong) the other shoots will eventually replace the tree you felled, but it is still a very wasteful way of getting food and only one to consider if you find yourself in an emergency situation.

Here in Malaysia one particular type of palm is taking over the forests: monospecies, oil palm plantations are a tempting, high yield crop and palm oil finds its way into something like half of the supermarket foods we consume. So, while some of us look at the forest and see a megabiodiverse eden that should be treasured, others see an open bank vault than can be easily raided (cut the trees down, sell the timber and then put in an oil palm plantation….simple!)

In some ways there is a parallel here: the jungle survivor cuts down the forest to satisfy his basic needs (no-one is going to blame you for harvesting hearts of palms if the alternative is starving to death!), similarly forest is cleared for oil palm plantations so that they can satisfy the economic ‘needs’ of the countries involved. In both cases the forest and wildlife suffers, in both cases the culprits would argue that their ‘need’ was justifiable and greater than the need to preserve the rain forest.

In a consumerist world with a rapidly expanding population, the economic ‘need’ of humans becomes an unquenchable thirst – consumers are obsessed with pursuing a rising standard of living and, as a result, countries are obsessed with generating year-on-year GDP growth ad infinitum, regardless of the fact that the world’s resources are limited (the earth is a closed system) and that this is clearly an unsustainable long-term strategy.

Adding to the problem is the fact that in many developing countries having lots of children is seen as the right thing to do (not least because your children are essentially your ‘pension plan’ in the absence of any adequate state alternative).

If you ever find yourself traveling to Malaysia’s impressive international airport (KLIA) you can see all this in microcosm: as you look out of the window on the final approach to the landing strip you will not see the great rain forests you dreamed of, but rather the regimented rows of the surrounding palm oil plantations.

Stephen Fry, staring down on just such a view, remarked, “I’ve seen the future of Malaysia – and it’s bleak.”
“How do you know” his companion asked.
“I’ve read its palms”

Once inside KLIA airport you might notice the architecture of the roof (whose trusses are designed to represent the fronds of the oil palm) and it dawns on you that the palm oil plantations are seen, by the government at least, as something to celebrate.

Then, as you mill around, you suddenly see the rain forest after all! It is enclosed behind a huge conical column of glass at the very centre of the airport – like an exhibit at a zoo, or a patient under quarantine – with full grown trees reaching upwards to the sky. Go inside and you can escape the air-conditioning and tanoys and crowds… and then take a moment to look back out through the glass at your fellow travelers who circle you in the main concourse, jostling each other, like brainwashed sheep, in their hurry to buy expensive-crap-they-don’t-need from designer-label shops and desperate to board a plane to take them on a holiday from their stressful job in the city that pays for the crap-they-don’t-need and the holidays-that-they-consequently-do…

…and you may ask yourself: “how did we get here?”