The Broken Land of Borneo
There is no worse feeling, than that of a broken heart. A term used in reference to extreme grief or sorrow. We all have, or will, suffer a broken heart at least once in our lifetime. I have experienced the feeling of despair on a number of occasions, mostly due to my own immature actions, but never had I felt so much emotional pain, as I did during a recent trip to Borneo, Malaysia.
A Little Bit about Borneo
Borneo, the third largest Island in the world, is shared by the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, Indonesian Kalimantan and the small nation of Brunei. The Borneo rainforest is over 140 million years old, making it one of the oldest in the world. The forests are rich in biodiversity and home to millions of species, including the critically endangered Bornean orangutan. It is also the only refuge for many endemic forest species, including the pygmy elephant, the Bornean clouded leopard and Eastern Sumatran rhinoceros.
So, as you can imagine, visiting Borneo is an absolute dream for any nature lover such as myself. This destination is topped only by a trip to the Amazon, on my list of “Things to do before I die”. This lifelong ambition was inspired by an episode on Borneo, covered by my hero David Attenborough, in my early teens. Finally, I was realizing a lifelong dream, but the picture I saw was steep in contrast to what I saw on the family box television all those years ago. I had read about the destruction and deforestation caused by the palm oil industry, but nothing could have prepared me for the grand scale on which it was taking place.
What is Palm Oil and its Impact on the Environment?
Palm oil is the most widely used edible vegetable oil in the world that is obtained from the palm fruit, grown on the African oil palm tree. The trees are originally from Western Africa, but can flourish wherever there is an abundance of heat and rainfall. Thus, the climate that has given life to the beautiful rainforest of Borneo, is now the reason for its rapidly approaching death. Although, the climate is not to blame, but the total greed and lack of compassion of mankind. It is estimated that 85% of all palm oil globally is produced and exported from Indonesia and Malaysia, with areas the equivalent size of 300 football fields of rainforest being cleared each hour to make way for rows and rows of Palm trees.
At the first sight of these uniform plantations, I was filled with a feeling of rage towards these multinational companies. How could anyone’s obsession with the accumulation of wealth drive them to destroy something not only incredibly beautiful, but providing ecosystems to countless living creatures and organisms? Then, it was the realization that I, through my consumption habits, was also contributing to this slaughter of animals and their habitats. I would prefer to use the word “genocide”, but this term seems to be reserved only for us human beings, who have decided that our own life is worth more than any other life.
Not only does the Palm Oil industry affect the forests and the animals that call them home, but it is also having a dramatic effect on the local people. Although, companies and government may promote palm oil plantations as way of bringing development to the poor, rural areas, this is not necessarily the case. Often government will allow corporations to take the land of indigenous people for their own financial gain. Some might argue that this creates employment, but at what cost to the local people? Wages are often extremely low and locals have to compete with foreign immigrants who are willing to work for far less. The palm oil industry is therefore violating gross human rights, including the use of child labour, with the children often receiving little or no pay.
How are We Contributing?
You see, palm oil is ubiquitous and more than half the packed foods and other products found on the many supermarket shelves contain palm oil. It is found in baked goods, chocolate, milk and even potato chips. It is also used in cosmetics and toiletries, and an important ingredient in soaps, shampoos and toothpaste. It is everywhere, and we all consume it, making us all responsible for, not only deforestation but also major human rights violations, including child labour.
For my entire life, completely unaware, I have been playing a small part in the destruction of something I love and cherish. I had become a materialistic person, failing to recognize the true nature of the material world. Part of a worldwide culture of rampant materialism, mindlessly destroying the natural world on which we depend. That realization, is the reason for my heart-break and critical reflection of the person I have become. How could I make this right?
What Can We Do?
It is extremely easy to make a difference, by just becoming more aware of where your money goes and what it supports. It is nearly impossible to cut out palm oil from your diet, but by limiting the products to essentials, we can dramatically decrease the demand for palm oil. The World Wild Life organization has compiled a list of products one can avoid. Or you could attempt the 28-Day Palm Oil Challenge.
Apart from limiting your use of palm oil products, you could use your voice and encourage others to follow suit. Spread awareness via social media, among friends and your family. Because I’m sure, like me, most people are just unaware of the major effects our simple actions have on the rainforests of Borneo.
The biggest obstacle facing Borneo, is man’s lack of compassion, sympathy and awareness, not only for one another but the environment on which we depend. In order for us to make any difference, we all need to start by questioning ourselves as individuals. Are we living a life that not only is beneficial to our own health and wellbeing, but that is not detrimental to the health and well-being of the environment and its inhabitants around us?
We need to also become more aware of our actions on the environment and other humans less fortunate than us. Is applying that bright red lipstick, or snacking on your favorite potato chip really worth taking the life of another already critically endangered orangutan? Those are the choices that ultimately decide the fate of Borneo!