Borneo is burning. Orang utans are being made extinct and their once beautiful natural habitat is being destroyed by greed and the relentless expansion of the palm oil industry. As travellers all over south east Asia deal with the aftermath of the haze, very few realise that palm oil is the driving force behind this man made and premeditated natural catastrophe, and no one is doing a damn thing about it.
Last week I wrote a post about the haze, a terrible blight that surges across south east Asia every single year and primarily effects Indonesia, Borneo, Singapore and Malaysia, but often extends as far as Thailand too.
I wrote about how the media had primarily focused on how it had affected the tourism industry, with cries from the Ministries of Tourism in Indonesia, Singapore and even Thailand to do something about the haze only because it was effecting their bottom line. Travellers were being inconvenienced. Tourists were staying away. Flights were being cancelled. They were losing money.
Indeed this was and is true, I was in Indonesia when the haze started and had to change my plans when I could no longer fly into Kalimantan to visit an orang utan sanctuary because the fires and the haze were so bad at the time.
Weeks later I found myself in Kuala Lumpur which was in the midst of a thick blanket of haze. It was so thick that it even obscured the views of the omnipresent Petronas towers, and amongst the TV adverts desensitizing everyone into thinking that this was a normal occurrence, face masks were handed out as if they would make any difference (they really wouldn’t) and everyone was still complaining of sore throats, coughs and minor respiratory ailments.
As a traveller I was inconvenienced. Plans changed, views were lost and experiences weren’t to be had. These things happen all the time when you are travelling, you learn to live with them.
This was how it affected travellers who are in the area for short periods of time. In the grand scheme of things that was hardly worth worrying about. For those who live here, both human and wildlife, the damage is much more invasive and sinister.
The Human And Environmental Cost.
The simple truth is anyone living in the area are going to suffer significant short term and long term respiratory illnesses and other negative health impacts. Sore throats and minor coughs are one thing, but being exposed to such high rates of pollution causes the risk of COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease and other chronic illnesses to rise significantly. The economy across many south east Asian countries is being affected to the tune of $47 Billion US Dollars.
But much worse than all that is the permanent destruction of – and ever increasing encroachment onto – one of the last remaining rainforests in the world and the killing of countless already critically endangered orang utans and other wildlife. The rainforest in Sabah has all but gone, the few remaining parcels of rainforest left are concentrated along the river and around tourist resorts, making the famous wildlife spotting treks that the region is famous for extremely successful, but not necessarily responsible. Orang utans and other wildlife are being killed either directly through the fires themselves, or the habitat loss from palm oil plantations.
Don’t let this beautiful tropical scene fool you. Not far behind this seemingly lush rainforest are vast palm oil plantations.
What I didn’t focus on too much in my last article on the haze was why this was happening.
Orangutans And Their Habitats Are Being Wiped Out For Greed.
The logging and paper industries aren’t totally blameless in this fiasco, but the truth is it is the palm oil industry that is primarily responsible. The minority involved in that palm oil industry are increasing their already vast wealth with absolutely zero concern for the damage they are doing to the environment or the human or wildlife populations.
Why? Because of palm oil?
It’s pathetic! It is heartbreaking to see that mankind is still putting greed and profit above the environment.
What Is Palm Oil?
Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil that has been used in almost every product imaginable since before modern history began. An early form of the oil has been dated back to culinary process in ancient Egypt. It is so widespread that it is even said that palm oil fuelled the industrial revolution! Much of South East Asia’s wealth can be attributed at some point to the proceeds made from this wonder product, but it has a sizeable impact on the global economic market too. It is that widespread.
Palm oil is found in almost everything we consume in the West, from packaged foods and soft drinks to toothpaste and soap. It is actually very difficult to find everyday products that don’t contain it.
What Is The Problem?
To make way for palm oil plantations, tracts of land are slashed and burned in order to clear it first, and this is what causes the vast fires that make the haze an annual nightmare. In the race to try and displace the blame, the industry giants are quick to blame local farmers, and it is absolutely true that there are small farmers who traditionally use slash and burn methods, but do not be fooled. These industry giants have vested interests in keeping the small farmers around as scapegoats, they not only encourage the use of slash and burn methods, they purposely carve roads through peat swamps and create canals that drain the peatlands which allows the fires to burn harder, longer and over a much more extensive area than it would naturally. Once the rainforest has been razed to the ground they annex the land for new plantations. Anyone who thinks this is a mere coincidence is a fool. And anyone who expects legislation or the government to do anything about it when the entire system is so corrupt and so invested in the profits themselves, then they need a serious reality check.
Nothing is being done about it because those in charge are too incompetent, too corrupt or too complicit to do anything about it
The big problem is that because there is so much demand for the product, and so much profit to be made, there are no ethics involved when it comes to those corporations and industries that can exploit it and make money from it.
Vast swathes of primary rainforest in Borneo has been wiped out, to the point that there are parts where it is almost gone entirely, just to make way for palm oil plantations. Orang utans are having their natural habitats destroyed. They are being killed off in huge numbers because of it. Local tribes have been displaced or forced to move away from ancestral lands. Migratory patterns have been irreversibly altered.
What Can Travellers Do?
There are many who argue that we should boycott any product with palm oil in it. And to be fair that would be ideal if it truly forced multinational companies and brands to stop using palm oil from Indonesia and working with these unethical industries. The problem with that is I really don’t think it is practical, or even possible. There are just too many products with palm oil in it.
You can try of course and try and avoid explicit palm oil use, but I just don’t think it is practical to avoid it completely.
That isn’t to say that I am against the reasoning behind the methods, and I really think there is room for more direct PR action against brands who use palm oil, I just don’t think a boycott will work.
We need to ensure that the land that orang utans rely on becomes genuinely protected, that it is far more valuable to the powers that be as a protected, profitable resource to be admired by tourists rather than a resource to be exploited for palm oil.
This is the real power travellers have.
If the governments of numerous countries are so concerned about our tourist dollar, if Indonesia is an annual pariah in the eyes of numerous tourism boards, then let’s use that! Let us all use that power to collectively say we want Borneo to be a protected natural resource that we can see and visit. We want orang utans to be allowed to live in a natural environment free from meaningless destruction. We want our tourist money from the small parts of the wildlife and their habitat that we can see to fund the vast tracts of land and various wildlife protection and conservation programmes that we can’t.
The responsible tourism economy is one of the single fastest growing markets in the tourism industry, and could potentially be far more valuable to the governments of south east Asia than the economic benefits of palm oil, especially since the negative effects of the haze add up to at least $47 billion USD annually at a minimum.
The value of eco tourism can’t simply be measured in monetary value however. By definition eco tourism puts a tangible and quantitative value on pristine, protected natural areas and their ecosystems, and that is it’s real value.
Borneo has huge potential to be one of the biggest centres for ecotourism on the planet. It is getting some of the balance right already, and you can see great examples of responsible tourism in the Semmengoh orang utan rehabilitation centre or the open cultural museum near Kuching in Sarawak for example, but it is also getting so much wrong too.
Travellers can make a real difference by coming to Borneo, and by extension Indonesia and the surrounding countries, doing their research and supporting eco friendly, responsible tourism options.
Visit and support the orang utans in genuine rehabilitation centres like Semmengoh that work to protect these magnificent animals. Refuse to participate in ‘tours’ or greenwashed ‘sanctuaries’ that use unethical methods to exploit wildlife for profit without caring about their habitat. Visit forests and research stations and show the powers that be that deforestation is against their best interests, and support local community initiatives or products that allow locals to make money from preserving and protecting the forest. These are simple things you can do to help.
The more money we pour into the responsible wildlife tourism industry, the more profitable eco tourism becomes, the more we all declare as travellers that we want eco friendly options, that we want the land to be protected, then the more chance we have to make that a reality.
What did you think of this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.
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Responsible Orang Utan Spotting In Semenggoh Wildlife Centre.
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Thank you for writing about this. I am one of those people who (unsuccessfully) tries to boycott palm oil products and it really is a hard thing to do: as you say, it is contained in things you would never expect and it’s not always easy to spot either. I like to think that every little action makes a difference and if we all did it, we would be able to make a change, but I completely agree with you that a more powerful and faster way to change is though responsible tourism. I think most people don’t think about the environmental impact of their activities, but would be willing to change habits if they saw the direct connection. This is why I think posts like this are hugely important: i strongly believe education is key
Thanks for reading Marta, you aren’t alone, I’ve tried avoiding palm oil myself, it’s a near impossibility! I think you are right about education and having that direct link with their actions too. Hopefully responsible tourism can change things for the better.
It is heartbreaking to learn about all this. Thank you for pointing it out to us. Human beings are always ready for destruction and these days even more than ever before. Thank you for inspiring change.
Thanks for reading Laura, raising awareness is the least I can hope for.
Supporting the eco-tourism industry, and pointing out that we, as travellers, only wish to use businesses and companies and operators that have high ethic standards, is a key factor. We need to spread the word out that exploitation of the environment – for tourist purposes as well as for other ones – as well as mass tourism is not the way to go; it is a short term strategy and eventually will leave the country completely depredated of its value and income. It is not just Borneo I refer to, and you know that. The only concern I have is that those in the decision making power could not care less about it, and that they can hardly see beyond their nose. Besides – and again you know what I am talking about – the current ration of travellers and travel bloggers who do care about responsible tourism issues is 1 out of 10. We need to increase that ratio.
Once again, thank you for putting your word out Mike.
Completely agree, I think travellers have a group have so much untapped power to make a difference in the world, and it’s about time we started using it.
Mike – thank you for taking the time to write such an important and valuable article. Had no idea about the ubiquitousness of palm oil, nor its awful impact – it’s a sad situation and, unfortunately, the prospects don’t appear good. God, I hate what we do to the world.
Thank you for reading it. 🙂 Not many people do know about palm oil, hopefully I can at least raise a little awareness.
Awful – we hardly hear about any of this in Australia even though Indonesia is our closest neighbours. My heart breaks for all the beautiful animals that were already under threat. My daughter is three years old and I really wonder how many more animals will be extinct by the time she’s an adult. Very sad.
It really is. Hopefully with more awareness and campaigning our generations can save these animals so your daughter can see them.
I hope so too, but I think you and other bloggers have done a great job in raising awareness. The recent campaign about elephants and tourism really got the message out there. So there is hope, I think people generally really aren’t aware about some of these issues and will probably change their behaviour if they hear about what’s going on.
Thank you, I totally agree. 🙂
You really do keep writing such amazing posts. I had a vague idea that palm oil was a bad thing but I had no idea why or to what extent. This is truly shocking. Thank you for writing this, and keep up the amazing work xoxo
Thank you, I’m just happy I can raise a bit of awareness on the issue 🙂
Wow, I had heard about this when I was in Indonesia but didn’t really know much about it tbh. This is shocking!
It really is. What annoys me is that it is reported all over SEA and people just dismiss it as a normal occurrence. Shocking doesn’t cover it!
I cannot believe they let this happen just out of greed. Humans disgust me sometimes.
Great post. Good job on raising awareness on this. I’ve been travelling through SEA for a few years now and have been affeted by the haze a few times. The authorities really need to get a grip on it.
Thanks, I totally agree. Aggressive action and sanctions from the international community is needed now, because lets face it the respective governments in SEA can’t be trusted to sort it out themselves after so many years.
I get what you are saying and agree wholeheartedly, but how exactly do we stop it? How do we boycott something like palm oil that is just everywhere?
I hear you Andrew and unfortunately there is no simple answer. The only answer I can give is little bit by little bit. We can’t do everything, no one can, but a lot of people doing a little makes a big difference.
Hi Michael. I have just come across your article and have to say it’s very well written with some great points made. We are a tour provider actually based in Borneo itself – not some large company based miles away that doesn’t have an idea of the impact or goings on within Borneo. We offer tours that are ethical, protective our our beautiful Borneo and ones that highlight the growing need for protection of the species and environment in so many ways. Something your article further helps to highlight. Even though your article is from 2015 it is still very much relevant today so I just wanted to comment on it. Good work! Borneo Bob.
Thanks Bob, I really appreciate that.
Well done on raising awareness of these issues, I have heard of the haze before but never knew of the reasons behind it beyond some vague mutterings about forest burning. This is just shocking.
Thanks, it really is. And most people just think of it as an inconvenience without looking into the issues.