What I did not know then of course, is that not only would I see the green ocean of Borneo and the beautiful beaches. But , I would also see many oil palm tree plantations and the consequences of these plantations for the local environment.
Borneo is one of those places that make you dreams as soon as you heard the name. It is a real natural treasure. Travelling into the island’s interior I had the chance to see orangutans and proboscis monkeys (an endemic species in Borneo) in Sepilok, one of the world’s smallest orchids in the Kinabalu Park, the highest summit of South East Asia (Mount Kinabalu, 4095 meters), turtles while diving in Semporna and so much more. But he who sees treasure, sees money and men never miss an opportunity to make money. As if Borneo did not have enough species, men chose to introduce a new one purely for riches: the palm oil tree. And who cares if they have to destroy one of the world’s most biodiverse areas to achieve their goals?! I care and we all should care.
The oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis jacq.) originates from West Africa and was introduced to Malaysia by the British in early 1870’s as an ornamental plant. Less than fifty years later, the first commercial planting was established and since the 1960s the cultivation has increased at a fast pace. Today, 4.49 millions hectares of land in Malaysia is used for palm oil cultivation, producing 17.73 million tonnes of palm oil. Because it is low cost, palm oil is the most used oil in the world : it is in one consumable product out of every ten. Today, most of the palm oil production occurs in Borneo. Maybe that can explain why whilst travelling from the north to the south of Sabbah (the Malaysian part of Borneo), the major part of the landscape I saw were palm oil trees.
The impact and the consequences for the environment of this production are huge and the forest is paid no dividend. The creation of monoculture palm oil plantations is a major driver of forest destruction, and as much as 87 per cent of all deforestation in Malaysia in the past twenty years can be attributed to palm oil plantations. The production of palm oil also has consequences for the orangutan, the only great ape still iving in Asia (except humans): almost 80 per cent of its natural habitat has been destroyed in twenty years. Orangutans are also killed by palm oil workers who consider them the enemy. Furthermore, the reduction of its natural habitat makes poaching easier. If things do not change very fast, the only place where you will be able to see an orangutan will be in a zoo. But it is not all about those big red monkeys, research has shown that when primary tropical rainforest is converted to palm oil plantations, 80 to 100 per cent of mammals, reptiles and birds species are wiped out.
Palm oil plantations generates pollution, this is a fact. This pollution is due not only to deforestation and, forest fires but also to the excessive use of agro-chemicals. Villagers living near palm oil plantations have described how local fish stocks decline and water becomes polluted after plantations are introduced. Because anger about this pollution production was increasing, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed in 2004 to promote the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products. But to date, there is not real criteria forcing them to act and even the protected forests continue to be developed into plantations. Usually, palm oil producers claim that their industry has a good financial impact for local populations but in Indonesia, the second largest producer after Malaysia, only 2 per cent of the population benefits financially from palm oil.
Palm oil is well on the way to win the fight against nature and if it keeps going like it is today, most of the rain forest of Borneo will have disappeared by 2022. And what can we do to prevent that? Stop buying products containing palm oil seems difficult because most of the time we don’t know that a product contains this oil. The key is not in our hands but surely is in those of the local populations. They know that their land suffers a lot at this moment and they suffer with it: and we should help them to rescue their land. Who knows, maybe the day I go back to Sabbah, I will see jungle for landscape.
Photos provided by Marie Delaplanche
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|Written by : June LEE
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