OILING THE WHEELS OF DEMOCRACY
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OILING THE WHEELS OF DEMOCRACY

The power of the consumer boycott is turning some major corporations into unlikely champions of a new form of political bargaining.Not so long ago, eating a biscuit or chocolate bar, or applying lipstick, meant, in all likelihood, that you were helping to deforest entire tropical landscapes. Today, just as unwittingly, you may instead be helping to drive a social and political revolution that is redefining the rules of international corporate behaviour and even giving democracy a passing fillip.At the centre of what was an emerging environmental crisis and has now become a benchmark for people power, is palm oil.It sounds innocuous enough but this simple agricultural product, mostly from South-East Asia, has become the focal point for a new tier of global governance, or rule making. Palm oil continues to catch nation states by surprise with its capacity to break through political inertia or corporate intransigence by harnessing – or threatening to harness – the power of the world’s consumers.It is a phenomenon still running its course and an enthralling spectacle for political scientist Associate Professor Helen Nesadurai from the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Monash University’s Sunway campus, near Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia is one of the largest producers of palm oil, giving Associate Professor Nesadurai a front-row seat to this seismic shift in the way non-governmental communities, often working with corporations, are setting rules that were once the province of corporate and political privilege.Associate Professor Nesadurai, who also collaborates with scholars from the University of Warwick in the UK (which has a formal alliance with Monash) and has consulted for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations secretariat and the Asian Development Bank, researches the politics and political economy of governance by non-state, civil society groups and private firms. She sees the possibilities of a new world order – a grassroots democracy at work – although it is not without its tensions and has a long way to go, especially in South-East Asia.The story began unfolding during the 1990s, when oil palm quickly began replacing other, less productive oil crops.

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OILING THE WHEELS OF DEMOCRACY