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  • Writer's pictureDearbhla

Borneo: An Island Ravaged By Palm Oil

Like most people, the thought of seeing orang-utans in their natural habitat is what drew me to Borneo initially. The ecological rampage across Borneo’s rainforests threatening their very existence means that very few now exist in the wild. As arboreal mammals, orang-utans spend most of their time in the trees. This makes them incredibly vulnerable to the effects of illegal logging and deforestation. Just a century ago, there were around 230,000 orang-utans in the wild, yet this number has more than halved. Between 1999 and 2015, nearly 150,000 critically endangered Bornean orang-utans perished.

Borneo has lost 39% of its forestry since 2000. The Bornean forests are some of the most biodiverse in the world, home to a range of species like orang-utans, clouded leopards, and pygmy elephants. They ensure there is a constant water source for the major rivers across the island, which also feed into the island's water supply. Crucially, they are also responsible for trapping vast amounts of carbon emitted from fossil fuels.

The insurgence of palm oil plantations means they are now the fastest driver of deforestation. Multinational corporations employ loggers to cut trees and set fires to clear forests for palm plantations on land mostly purchased by private individuals or companies from the Malaysian and Indonesian governments. These slash and burn techniques have accelerated global warming worldwide; the fumes trapped as carbon forever in our atmosphere.

Palm oil comes from the seemingly innocuous fruit that grows on the oil palm, which originated in Africa. It is a high-yield crop, easy to grow, evergreen and it doesn’t need especially fertile land to grow. It’s an industry dream. For centuries, people have been using palm oil in cooking, weaving and for fuel, yet, with the increasing pressure on its production, it now accounts for a third of global vegetable oil consumption. Palm oil also happens to be the most versatile vegetable oil in the world.

Palm oil is now found in everything from chocolate bars to eyeshadow. About 50% of the packaged products we find on shop shelves contain palm oil. It provides the foaming agent in virtually every shampoo, liquid soap or detergent and is even used by the EU as a cheap source of ‘biofuel’. Our insatiable desire to drive up profits and purchase goods on the cheap is driving orang-utans and pygmy elephants to extinction. Yet, we continue to turn a blind eye in favour of party pack Doritos and Clarins face cream. Even the Linda McCartney brand uses palm oil in their products, as do health food store, Holland and Barrett. The irony of this is excruciating. The growing junk food industry worldwide, particularly across parts of Asia, is also fuelling an already burgeoning demand. As GDP grows, so too does the processed food industry; it’s cheap to buy and even cheaper to produce.

The production costs around palm oil are far less than any other vegetable oil crop, plus it yields the highest amount of crop per acre than any other vegetable oil on the market. Boycotting it would only lead to increased land usage for other crops. To produce the same amount of crop for soybean or coconut oil you would use up to 10 times more land. This would simply be pushing the problem from one area to another. Although much action has been taken to steer clear of unsustainable palm oil within the EU in recent years, the market in Asia is soaring. According to the Guardian, India, China, and Indonesia account for nearly 40% of all palm oil consumed worldwide.

Yet, there is a way to farm it sustainably. National Geographic have found that in Gabon, they are creating a balance between oil palm harvesting, agriculture, and forest preservation. Scientific assessments are being undertaken on areas of forest with higher conservation value and those areas which can be used to farm palm oil. Many industry heads are committed to using sustainable palm oil after consumer backlash.

Ensuring palm oil is sustainable is incredibly hard to implement and monitor. Legally protecting forests, policing palm oil sources, and educating and empowering both indigenous communities and consumers is the only way forward. Without protecting the forest from illegal logging and palm oil plantations, the species relying on the forests to survive will become extinct. This particularly pertains to orang-utans and pygmy elephants as they need larger spaces to inhabit. Entire ecosystems and swathes of forest have been obliterated. This has meant that these larger animals are also vulnerable to the illegal wildlife trade as there is no forest cover to hide them.

Certified palm oil can enable local communities to continue to depend on palm oil for their livelihoods and protect the environment at the same time. This also relies on the effective implementation by policy makers. Ecotourism can also directly affect how orang-utans are protected. It can help fund rehabilitation projects and community development schemes. Yet, until we, the consumers across Europe, The US and Asia are willing to forfeit cheaper goods for sustainably sourced palm oil, it doesn’t seem likely that much will change in the future.


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