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 was so bad.
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 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.
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.
Orang utans are being wiped out and their habitat destroyed all because of 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. It is so widespread that it is 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.
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. 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. We want orang utans to be allowed to live in a natural environment free from meaningless destruction.
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.
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