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Saving the Planet's Lungs in Borneo

Picture of Nikki Vargas
Nikki Vargas
Travel Editor
Updated: 28 July 2017

It’s a humid afternoon in central Borneo. I’m on a riverboat cutting through the black water of the Sekonyer River in Tanjung Puting National Park, situated in Indonesia’s central Kalimantan province. Our riverboat is modest, a two-level vessel with a bathroom and kitchen below and a paint-chipped covered deck above. By day, the deck has nothing more than a simple wooden table for lunch and breakfast. At night, sleeping mats are laid out and mosquito netting is strung up. It’s quiet except for the distant barking of a proboscis monkey, unseen in the dense emerald foliage hugging the riverbanks.

Borneo is the third-largest island on the planet and one of the few remaining habitats biodiverse enough for monkeys, rhinos, clouded leopards, and elephants to co-exist in. Along with the Amazon, Borneo’s oxygen-rich jungle is considered the Earth’s lungs.

It’s beginning to drizzle as I hover on the bow of the riverboat, arms outstretched in an effort to cool myself off in the rain. As I scan the water for a glimpse of the Siamese crocodiles native to this region, I can feel the jungle’s humidity wrap around me like a sodden sweater. The crocodiles and leopards of Borneo might be dangerous to me, but humans in general are far more deadly for them and their world. Humans don’t care about the animals; they are far more interested in the jungle itself, which represents a vastly profitable harvest of palms.

Sunrise on the Sekonyer River | ©JMcurto/Shutterstock

Sunrise on the Sekonyer River | © JMcurto/Shutterstock

There is a certain irony to how I’m outfitted for Borneo. The local ochre-colored dirt sticks to my sunscreen-streaked legs and my lotion-covered hands. I am covered, head to toe, in palm oil. From the generic Chapstick lathered on my lips to the mosquito repellent sprayed on my skin, avoiding the oil—found in 50 percent of supermarket products—seems impossible.

Palm oil is derived from the reddish pulp of the oil palm fruit (elaeis guineensis), which flourishes in West Africa. In the 1800s, archaeologists first found traces of palm oil within an Egyptian tomb in the ancient city of Abydos. Their discovery suggests that palm oil may have been one of the first traded commodities.

With the British Industrial Revolution in the mid 1820s, palm oil significantly expanded beyond Africa and into the international market. Palm oil’s many uses—from cooking to making soap—created an insatiable demand for the product. Europeans eventually saw an opportunity and began to invest in the cultivation and production of palm oil in West Africa, before expanding into Southeast Asia, setting up the first commercial plantation in Malaysia in 1917. Today, palm oil plantations cover six million hectares of land in Indonesia alone.

Palm Fruit| © Ky Tan/Shutterstock

Palm Fruit | © Ky Tan/Shutterstock

Marketing its products as everything from a greener alternative to fossil fuel to a trans-fat-free substitute for other cooking oils, 85 percent of the world’s oil originates from Indonesia and Malaysia. While palm oil’s presence may not be detectable in everyday life, its absence would certainly be noticed.

According to a report from Greenpalm,Palm kernel and palm oil uses are widely varied because they can be processed and blended to produce a vast range of products with different characteristics.” In short, palm oil offers a two-for-one deal where the flesh and kernel can both provide usable oil. That oil is what offers freshness to our food, creaminess to our ice cream, crispness in our fries and chips, even smoothness to our cosmetics.

From cooking to disease prevention, the benefits of using palm oil are considerable, but the environmental impact of harvesting the palms has caused irreparable damage to the Bornean jungle and its inhabitants. Deforestation has caused a 50 percent decrease in orangutan numbers and reduced the population of Sumatran tigers and rhinos to less than 100. And given that deforestation fires pumped more than two billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2015, we’re pushing our planet’s lungs to their limit.

Amy Fitzmaurice is a PhD student and Conservation Scholar studying zoology at Oxford University’s WildCRU, and works as a researcher at Chester Zoo on the Living with Tigers Project. She’s also the founder of the Facebook group Global Conservation Updates. While boycotting palm oil seems improbable, Fitzmaurice explains that the industry can still shift to sustainable practices. “Palm oil can be a sustainable crop production, but currently [much of] the palm oil industry is unsustainable and destroying millions of hectares of tropical rainforest around the world—from Africa to Borneo—just so companies have less cost per product.”

Borneo Deforestation | © Rich Carey/Shutterstock

Borneo Deforestation | © Rich Carey/Shutterstock

The urgency of transitioning the palm oil business to sustainability can be lost in today’s political climate, where the cries for climate change awareness often fall on deaf ears. Under the leadership of former United States President Barack Obama, the US spearheaded the fight against climate change. Since Donald Trump stepped into the Oval Office and named former Oklahoma Attorney General and EPA critic Scott Pruitt head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Republican climate change deniers are flooding the White House. The shift in the United States’ support for preventative climate change initiatives makes a push for corporate responsibility that much harder.

“The impact of the palm oil industry is felt globally,” says Shayne McGrath, the Leuser Ecosystem Conservation Director of Wildlife Asia, who has been working across various sectors of land management and biodiversity issues related to Indonesia.

“Beyond threatening the extinction of orangutans, tigers, elephants, and the world’s most iconic megafauna, we are seeing the palm oil industry drive major global contributions to climate change,” adds Sharon Smith, who works with the Tropic Forest & Climate Initiative at Union of Concerned Scientists to reduce deforestation emissions related to land use. “If we want to tackle climate change, we can’t overlook tropical deforestation, and palm oil development is one of the largest drivers of that.”

To understand why palm oil harvesting is both depleting animal populations and threatening our very existence via carbon emissions, it’s important to know how sustainable and unsustainable palm oil cultivation differs. In short, it comes down to fire. Unsustainable palm oil agriculture uses fire to clear lands for crop production. In 2015, over 10,000 square miles of tropical forest were torched to make way for palm oil plantations, causing both habitat loss for numerous species and environmental problems. “The haze from these fires spread and lingered across much of Southeast Asia,” explains McGrath. “Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines all felt the negative impacts as toxic smoke choked the air in a man-made environmental disaster that saw Indonesia overtake the United States and China as the world’s worst greenhouse gas emitter.”

Palm oil cultivation| © think4photop/Shutterstock.com

Palm oil cultivation | © think4photop/Shutterstock.com

In contrast, sustainable palm oil cultivates the plant without the use of deforestation methods. This commitment to palm oil production without deforestation helps protect the animals and indigenous people of the forest, while also slowing the environmental impact the palm oil industry has had on the earth.

Beyond the harrowing effects the palm oil industry has on climate change, deforestation demolishes the ecosystems of Borneo’s wildlife, particularly its orangutans. In recent years, orangutans have become the melancholy emblem of the palm oil industry’s excesses.

That’s why I’m on a riverboat on the Sekonyer, traveling to Camp Leakey, one of the oldest animal research centers in the world specializing in the conservation and protection of wild orangutans. Camp Leakey was established in the 1970s and founded by Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, whose ongoing research explores the nuances of orangutan behavior. Galdikas went on to found the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine, where more than 300 orangutan orphans—collateral damage from the palm oil industry—are cared for.

Wild Orangutans| © Nikki Vargas

Wild Orangutans | © Nikki Vargas

At Camp Leakey, I watch as the red-orange fur of the orangutans glows in the afternoon sun. A baby clings to its mother as she gently nurses him. A younger male orangutan—the ape equivalent of a human teenager—proves mischievous as he bundles bananas in his arms and slinks off into the trees with his loot. Their interactions play out like a Borneo-style soap opera; there’s the doting mother, there’s the trouble-making neighbor, and there’s the stubborn father. The very word “orangutan” is a Malaysian/Indonesian word for “people of the forest,” and as I observe these animals, I can see why.

Mickey Juanda, a Bornean ecotour guide and founder of Orangutan Journey, has witnessed firsthand the devastation palm oil has caused in his country. Juanda explains that orangutans killed in palm oil plantations are often considered threats to the crops. “Companies order their staff to kill or shoot orangutans [on sight]. In 2013, in the East Kalimantan province, thousands of orangutans were massacred by local people [because of] a palm oil company.”

Beyond the protected borders of Tanjung Puting, deforestation fires are pushing the existence of this endangered species to the limit. “A key example is the Tripa peat swamp forest, which is renowned for being ‘The Orangutan Capital of the World’ and home to the highest density of orangutans found in the wild,” says McGrath. “Since 1990, the Sumatran orangutan population has dropped from roughly 3,000 to a few hundred, if that.” The simple fact is that orangutans—and other native wildlife—cannot survive where unsustainable palm oil production thrives.

With international pressure from consumers pushing some of the world’s biggest brands to commit to sustainable practices, there might yet be hope for these jungles. Back in 2004, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) brought together stakeholders, growers, and companies in an effort to work together to make palm oil more sustainable. The discussion became known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and was established to outline sustainable practices for the cultivation and development of the palm oil industry. Becoming the globally recognized standard for sustainable palm oil, RSPO focuses on eight basic principles in order for growers to be certified.

RSPO Principles © GreenPalm

RSPO Principles © GreenPalm

A digital scorecard created by the WWF allows consumers to track the responsible palm oil use of companies around the world, rating their sustainability on a scale of one to nine. Major US brands—such as General Mills, Mondelēz, McDonald’s, and PepsiCo—are blazing the trail for 100 percent sustainable palm oil use with a score of nine out of nine. Other companies, such as Target, Campbell’s, and publicly earth-friendly Whole Foods, scored a one out of nine or remained unresponsive.

While some may feel compelled to shun palm oil products altogether, Neil Blomquist—former CEO of Spectrum Oils, and head of the mission-based sustainable palm oil educational platform, Palm Done Right—suggests otherwise. “Palm oil will not go away as a key ingredient,” concludes Blomquist. “It provides a healthy source of fat and functionality to products that other oils do not provide, and it has replaced unhealthy hydrogenated fats in the food system. It also provides a healthy vegan alternative to animal fats for baked products. By supporting a supply chain where existing farms have been converted to a sustainable environment, it will encourage a return to environmental diversity, help reverse climate change, and allow small farmers and local communities in underdeveloped parts of the world to flourish.”

Endangered orangutans and climate impact may be abstract ideas while perusing the aisles of your local grocery store, but the fate of Borneo’s wildlife—and the earth’s lungs—come down to the consumer choice. “The best leverage we have is in calling for these global brands to only buy palm oil from companies with responsible production and sourcing practices,” suggests Sharon Smith. “These responsible practices include development on low-carbon lands (not at the expense of forests or peatlands), the protection of the rights of workers, and securing the free, prior and informed consent of local communities before beginning any new plantation development or expansion.”

Camp Leakey Orangutans| © Nikki Vargas

Camp Leakey Orangutans | © Nikki Vargas

On the rickety dock in front of Camp Leakey, I spot a mother orangutan poised on the pier, her baby clinging to her belly like a shy toddler. The mother knows Camp Leakey well, having been cared for by the staff; she stays close to the feeding provided to her here. Whatever dangers the mother has faced at the hands of humans, her baby has yet to realize the threats that we pose. I kneel down, mere inches from the baby ape, as it curiously extends an open hand in my direction. I reach to meet the baby’s little hand with my own, then stop short, noticing the glisten of my lotion-covered skin, remembering the palm oil I’m wearing that could well have been produced in this very forest. With one last look at the orangutan, I drop my hand and pull back.

This story is part of the Culture Trip Special: Limits collection.