Agriculture remains an important sector of Malaysia’s economy, contributing 12 percent to the national GDP and providing employment for 16 percent of the population. The British established large-scale plantations and introduced new commercial crops (rubber in 1876, palm oil in 1917, and cocoa in the 1950s). The 3 main crops—rubber, palm oil, and cocoa—have dominated agricultural exports ever since, although the Malaysian share of the world’s production of these crops declined steadily during the last 2 decades. In addition to these products, Malaysian farmers produce a number of fruits and vegetables for the domestic market, including bananas, coconuts, durian, pineapples, rice, rambutan (a red, oval fruit grown on a tree of the same name in Southeast Asia), and others. The Malaysian tropical climate is very favorable for the production of various exotic fruits and vegetables, especially since Peninsular Malaysia seldom experiences hurricanes or droughts.
As rice is a staple foodstuff in the everyday diet of Malaysians and is a symbol of traditional Malay culture, the production of rice, which stood at 1.94 million metric tons in 1998, plays an important part in the country’s agriculture. However, the overall production of rice does not satisfy the country’s needs, and Malaysia imports rice from neighboring Thailand and Vietnam.
In 1999, Malaysia produced 10.55 million metric tons of palm oil, remaining one of the world’s largest producers. Almost 85 percent or 8.8 million metric tons of this was exported to international market. Malaysia is one of the world’s leading suppliers of rubber, producing 767,000 metric tons of rubber in 1999. However, in the 1990s, large plantation companies began to turn to the more profitable palm oil production. Malaysia also is the world’s fourth-largest producer of cocoa, producing 84,000 metric tons in 1999.
Logging in the tropical rainforest is an important export revenue earner in East Malaysia and in the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia. In 2000, Malaysia produced 21.94 million cubic meters of sawed logs, earning RM1.7 billion (US$450 million) from exports. Malaysia sells more tropical logs and sawed tropical timber abroad than any other country, and is one of the biggest exporters of hardwood. Despite attempts at administrative control and strict requirements regarding reforestation in the early 1990s, logging companies often damage the fragile tropical environment. Sharp criticism from local and international environmentalist groups gradually led to bans on the direct export of timber from almost all states, except Sarawak and Sabah. In December 2000, the government and representatives of indigenous and environ-mentalist groups agreed that there is a need to adopt standards set by the international Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which certifies that timber comes from well-managed forests and logging companies have to be responsible for reforestation.