Deforestation in Borneo: The Harsh Realities of Palm Oil

Deforestation in Borneo: The Harsh Realities of Palm Oil

I’d signed up to trek through dazzling rainforests and hike up glorious mountains. “See the untouched wilderness and species-rich rainforests of Borneo,” the reviews said. “Be amazed by exotic wildlife in untamed jungle lands.” I had high expectations of the trip and the sights I was going to see (rookie error 101 – never set expectations based off online reviews). Said expectations were soon crushed by the harsh reality that faced me upon arrival.

Looking out my window on a two-hour bus trip from Sabah to Sandakan, I saw nothing but flattened forests and scourged land the entire way. I felt stupid for feeling so shocked but I couldn’t help it. I knew deforestation was a big issue, particular in Indonesia, but seeing it firsthand like this was truly eye-opening and honestly pretty damn frightening. In place of what should have been flourishing green forests lay dry, dusty red soil. Rows upon rows of trees had been severed, their remains scattered around like piles of broken bones. There were no native animals to be seen. It was a battleground with nil survivors.

Wanting to know more about this incomprehensible situation, I questioned my bus driver Edward. He told me what I had somewhat suspected, that the land had been excavated for palm oil plantations. He explained how Malaysia and Indonesia are the two largest producers of palm oil, with more than 50 million tons manufactured and exported worldwide each year. The rise in demand over the past 20 or so years has led to rapid amounts of clearing and is causing major havoc for the environment, animals and the local people.

Edward’s main concerns were for the local people, who he said are having their human rights violated by the corrupt mass corporations in control. Cheap labour (and in some cases unpaid child labour), poor working conditions, shitty hours and no breaks are all commonplace in ye old farming and plantation industry, you see. He explained how the government attempts to mask the corruption by claiming the industry is helping to create job opportunities (classic gov spiel), when in reality the poorer communities are finding themselves with no choice but to become plantation workers after the farming land they depend on is taken from them. Once they get into the fields, they are faced with hard work and long days and earn barely enough income to survive let alone support their families. They end up becoming reliant on the success of the industry which leaves them vulnerable to the world market price which they have no control over. It’s a vicious cycle which they cannot get out of.

Still not completely understanding what palm oil is used for, I started furiously researching to find an explanation as to why it is such an essential commodity.

The results left me dumbfounded, once again. Palm oil – a type of vegetable oil derived from the fruit from oil palm trees – is in bloody everything. Peanut butter, bread, chocolate, spaghetti, shampoo, cleaning detergents, the list is endless. Basically, unless a packaged product’s ingredient list states that it does not have palm oil in it, it most likely does. And they don’t make it easy for us – palm oil can be sneakily labelled under more than 30 different names, if labelled at all.

Why is it such a common ingredient? Short answer: because it’s cheap. Apparently oil palm trees are like the god of all trees because they a) take up hardly any space when planted b) are the most efficient oil-bearing crop there is and c) can live up to hundreds of years if maintained. These favourable traits make them a super cheap asset for the mass production industry. Thus their fruits are picked and their juices squeezed into an abundance of delicious snack foods and pretty smelling soaps for us to chuck in our shopping baskets each week.

Mix these reasons with the ability of the industry to save money by corruptly underpaying workers and you have the perfect reason to continue choppin’ forests down! Right?

But wait, there’s more. Not only is the deforestation for these plantations destroying the livelihood of the locals, it’s also having crazy effects on the climate, impacting water systems and stealing homes from billions of native animals. Without a home or place to hide species like orangutans, elephants and rhinos are left vulnerable and at risk of being poached by wildlife hunters. Orangutans are a prime target in Indonesia, with the illegal wildlife trade making big bucks off finding baby or young orangs in the wild, separating them from their mothers and selling them to zoos or private buyers who dress them up and trick tourists into paying for photos with them. Pretty sad, huh?

Wanna know something even more depressing? Besides eliminating every single product that contains palm oil from your household (which is an incredibly time consuming job, trust me I’ve tried), there’s not a lot of ways in which the individual can help.

Unfortunately, like many others, this is an issue that needs to be addressed by the big dog international game changers. All us peasants can do is keep tying ourselves to trees and sharing shit on social media to spread the word until it finally gets through.

Cover by the author