We arrived in Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of Malaysian Borneo, without really knowing what to expect. It was a spontaneous, throw a dart at a map type of travel plan for us and, even though it’s not your typical backpacker destination, we were not met with regret. Nor would we ever forget our time there.
It’s not that Borneo isn’t frequented by tourists, it’s just that it hadn’t really been on our radar before. Many are drawn to it due to the promise of natural beauty and wildlife that’s exotic to us in The West. The one thing that we did know about Borneo was that it is home to orangutans - orange haired, playful primates that share 97% of the same DNA as us humans! Excitement quickly built as we started to see more and more orangutans in pictures plastered around the airport and stuffed toys being sold at souvenir shops around the city.
After a couple of days exploring Kota Kinabalu, it was time to head to Sandakan, another city located in the Malaysian state of Sabah. Here, we jumped at the chance to book ourselves onto an organised tour offered to us by our hotel. We couldn’t wait to see an orangutan in wild! Only 80,000 wild orangutans now exist in the world! It was once in a lifetime!
The tour started with a visit to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation center - a safe haven for orangutans in the form of 43 sq kms of protected jungle, their natural habitat. As well the risk posed to them by the illegal pet trade, orangutans’ lives are threatened massively by the destruction of their homes due to the development of palm oil plantations. The rehabilitation centre takes in orphaned and injured orangutans and is vital to the survival of orangutans in Borneo.
Part 2 of the trip consisted of some wildlife spotting along the Kinabatangan River. The journey to our lodge took about two and a half hours, and it was on our way there that all of the excitement was sucked from within us. What used to be the great Borneo jungle, the lungs of island, was now a sea of palm oil plantations. We drove for miles and miles and the palm oil trees kept on coming in waves, blanketing every single surrounding hillside. Nothing but the green leaves of the palm oil trees stretched so unfathomably far. We couldn’t believe our eyes… Where was the jungle?
According to WWF only half of Borneo's rain forest cover remains today, which is down 75% compared to what it was in the mid ‘80s. In Sabah specifically, palm oil plantations cover over 1.5 million hectares of land. Malaysia is the world’s second largest palm oil producer and, with the palm oil industry only set to grow, land is continuously being cleared and burnt down to make way for more plantations.
Legislation is in place to regulate business, labour, human rights and indigenous rights, and is important for protecting against deforestation, biodiversity loss, water pollution, soil erosion and carbon emissions. However, regulation is often a challenge due to corruption and weak enforcement.
In Borneo, it’s not just the orangutans that are left suffering… Tigers, elephants and rhinos are all at risk of extinction, and humans too are subjected to rights violations and unhealthy air pollution. It’s the activity and consumption of us humans that’s been found to be the major cause of our planet’s sixth mass extinction! How can we get away with causing so much damage to the natural world? How is this fair?
There’s no doubting that palm oil production has boosted Malaysia’s economy and has created hundreds of jobs. It’s also true that palm oil is one of the most efficient oil crops in the world, requiring less land for more yield, and for that reason some people say that boycotting palm oil is not the answer. Others say that you simply cannot avoid it… We may not use it directly in our cooking, but in some form, it is sitting on most of our supermarket shelves and is most likely coming home with us in our weekly shops. It’s in everything from processed snack foods to butter, bread and even cosmetic products - HALF of all packaged supermarket products. It’s the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet!
However, when it comes to what we buy, we always want to be mindful and aware of the impact that our consumption might have, and personally, we DO NOT want to support such a destructive and unsustainable practise. Eating a plant based diet reduces how much palm oil is used in animal feed, whilst also requiring less land and resources in the farming and cultivation processes. We also recommend signing petitions, writing to and pressuring supermarkets, and supporting products that display a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certification instead. FYI - the high street supermarket Iceland is now choosing not to use palm oil in any of their own brand products and, earlier this year, they also announced their commitment to eliminating single use plastics too. Above all else, the easiest thing to do to help fight unsustainable and unethical practises is to talk about it and engage in raising awareness about it. That’s what we believe, but what do you think can and should be done?
Sources and further reading:
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