Photo: Wikimedia

In September and October 2015, one of the worst environmental disasters of the 21st century happened in Indonesia. And despite its apocalyptic consequences, the story was largely ignored by the western media.

In order to clear the Indonesian rain forest for a palm oil, it was lit completely on fire. A toxic cloud of haze resulted, hanging over Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore for weeks. The haze killed people and endangered wildlife, and put the lives of millions of others at risk -– all for the benefit of a selected few.

My wife and I spent a week in Singapore during the Haze. The Lion City was pervaded by thin, milky-colored mist. Visibility was severely limited, and most locals wore N-95 filtrating masks. A few days spent walking the street were enough to give us sore throats and persistent coughs that lasted for nearly a month.

But this article isn’t about us. This isn’t meant to be about travelers or about the brief discomfort we had to face while visiting Haze-affected areas. It’s not about cancelled flights or about us failing to check our bucket list off.

This is a much bigger issue.

Photo: Wikimedia

Millions of people live in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. And they haven’t been able to breathe for months. Ten people have died as a direct consequence of the Haze and there have been 500,000 reported cases of acute respiratory tract infections. Six Indonesian provinces have claimed they’re in a state of emergency.

It has been estimated that these slash and burn forest fires produced more carbon emissions in a day than the whole of the US economy — and the emissions that have resulted so far have already exceeded what Germany produces in a year.

On top of all that, there are the consequences of habitat and biodiversity loss. Orangutans, one of the most endangered species in the world, are at risk — especially their babies. Fires encroached rescue centres in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), leaving no alternative but to evacuate or shelter the apes indoors. Either option causes the species a great deal of stress.

Photo: Wikimedia

Meanwhile, it was estimated that more than a third of wild orangutans (currently about 54,000 in Borneo and 6,600 in Sumatra) have been threatened by the fires and their environmental consequences. These fires are destroying tens of thousands of hectares of primary rain forest, pushing the orangs onto ever-increasing palm oil plantations where they often meet the rifles of the guards.

All this destruction, in the name of what? Palm oil. It’s a vegetable oil ingredient that’s basically in every kind of packaged food, as well as soaps, detergents, ice creams, margarine… and many, many more.

Let’s start from the beginning. Once upon a time, there was Borneo, one of the biggest islands in the world. Borneo was completely covered in rain forest. It was inhabited by all kinds of wildlife – including orangutans, dubbed by natives ‘men of the forest’ for their uncanny similarity to humans (orang utan means ‘man of the forest’ in Malay, Indonesian and many native languages).

Photo: Wikimedia

The rain forest was so thick, that native tribes believed orangutans had the ability to cross the whole island, swinging from tree to tree, without ever touching the ground.

And then palm oil arrived.

Palm oil, in fact, is not a modern invention. It originates from West Africa and it has been consumed since the times of Ancient Egypt. The need for palm oil increased during the Industrial Revolution because we used it to make lubricants, candles and a variety of other products. The nutritious fruits of the palm, from which oil is extracted, were used as food during long transoceanic sailing journeys. It has even been argued that palm oil has been one of the driving forces behind the Industrial Revolution.

Palm oil plantations were set up in West Africa, and then Southeast Asia. The first commercial palm oil plantation was created in Malaysia in 1917 — the number of plantations increased dramatically from the 1960s onward, when the Malaysian government offered subsidies to eradicate poverty in rural areas. The same happened in Indonesia, the world’s biggest producer of palm oil — production increased from 157,000 tonnes to 33.5 million tonnes between 1964 and 2014.

Borneo has the perfect climate for palm oil plantations, and the rain forest offered the perfect terrain. Palm oil is a so-called ‘golden crop’. Its yield is incredibly high – having a palm oil plantation is pretty much guaranteed profit. To give you an idea, a hectare of palm oil yields over 3.5 tonnes — 5 times more than soya.

Photo: Wikimedia

Admittedly, palm oil has also done a lot for small rural farmers – nowadays 39% of Malaysia’s palm oil plantations is owned by small farmers. Yet, palm oil business remains largely in the hands of half-dozen big distributors, who act as middlemen between growers and food manufacturers.

Small farmers have been blamed for starting the fires. No one knows for sure whether this is true or not, but the fact remains that palm oil plantations have altered the landscape and human geography of Borneo permanently – clearing ancestral land used for hunting and gathering, displacing wildlife and tribes, turning nomadic tribes into sedentary communities – for many locals, growing palms was probably their only alternative to poverty.

Whoever lit the match frankly doesn’t matter. Borneo is dying. And the world is doing nothing.

Five years ago, we visited the Malaysian state of Sabah, in the northern part of Borneo. We saw orangutans for the first time in Sepilok, an orangutan rescue center – an experience that moved us to tears.

But if you asked me what we remembered most about Sabah, it was the palms. They were literally everywhere.

The Kinabatangan River region is one of the best for wildlife watching in Borneo – and it owes part of its fame to palm oil. Plantations pretty much erased the primary rain forest, which survives only in small parcels concentrated around tourist resorts.

Orangutans, proboscis monkeys, gibbons, monitor lizards and others have been pushed into these small parcels, making wildlife watching easy. Behind a 50 m strip of forest on either side of the river, there are just palms. Palms as far as the eye can see.

In Sarawak, the other Malaysian state in Borneo, the situation seems a little better — far less land compared to Sabah has been given over to plantations, perhaps because Sarawak’s land is under state control, whereas Sabah’s is under federal control.

Borneo could be an ecotourism haven. It has mountains, caves, forests, rivers, islands and – naturally – rain forest. It has wildlife. It has opportunity for adventure activities. It has beaches with stunning sunsets. It still possesses that ‘wild’ feel that made so many of us fall for the island in the first place. But how long is it going to last?

The question, now, is what we can do as individuals to stop this massacre.

Remove palm oil from your diet. But palm oil is sneaky — it goes by many forms and many names. Outside of the EU, it’s isn’t even labeled clearly.

Here are some words used to indicate palm oil:
Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol

If you can’t give up palm oil, limit your consumption of palm oil products as much as possible. Bake cakes instead of eating packaged sweets. Ditch junk food. Buy your shampoo and moisturizer from organic shops.

What else can we do to help?

If you can, go to Malaysia or Indonesia on vacation. Palm oil has indeed brought wealth and development, but ecotourism can, too.

Support eco-friendly local businesses, use a sustainable-minded tour operator and make sure you visit an orangutan sanctuary, to meet first-hand those gentle giants that are now suffering the consequences of the fires. In Malaysian Borneo the two main sanctuaries are Sepilok in Sabah, right in the middle of palm oil country, and Semenggoh in Sarawak.

Not convinced? Look at Costa Rica. They pretty much invented the term ‘ecotourism.’ Leveraging their natural beauty in a respectful, sustainable and non-invasive way, Costa Rica became one of the leading countries in the world for ecotourism. Since 1999, tourism brings more revenue to the country than coffee, bananas and pineapples combined, the three main cash crops of the country.

On top of that, investing on ecotourism brought a massive decrease in unemployment (7.8% in 2012, lower than most of Europe) and several logging industries shut down.

Why can’t it be the same for Borneo?

If you can’t travel, choose to support NGOs doing work on the ground, like International Animal Rescue. Support them with a donation, and tell your friends to do the same.

Whatever you choose to do, please don’t let this tragedy go forgotten.

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