I’ve always had these romantic visions of Borneo as a rainforest covered island with black rivers snaking through its dark interior. An island that is home to tribal people, exotic birds and plants, and creepy insects crawling across the forest floor.
But reality is never as romantic as you imagined. Although such places still exist, both Kalimantan and Malaysian Borneo have been heavily deforested in the past decades, with primary rainforest being burned and logged to make way for agriculture. In the seventies and eighties Indonesia even had a transmigrasi program to move poor farmers to Kalimantan, so they could clear and work the land in order to feed the country’s ever-growing population. But with the jungle gone, the soil quickly eroded and became unfertile. Nowadays, Borneo is the worlds largest supplier of palm oil and monoculture has been taken to the extreme. We’ve been riding past hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of palm oil plantations; sometimes it felt like the whole island is covered with rows of palm trees.
At many ethnic longhouse villages, like Kampung Patrick Libau where we stayed one night, literally everyone works in the palm oil plantations. Modern amenities like cell phones, televisions and internet have made their way here, and the economic development provides these people with an income. However, it’s not always helping them forward. They’re selling (or sometimes losing) their land and their soul to powerful corporations, and with it the forest they’ve always depended on. So people get stuck working in conditions that are far from ideal.
What’s most depressing though, is the ongoing loss of rainforest that has existed and survived for millions of years and is the habitat of an incredibly large variety of fauna and flora, including the endangered orangutan. Not only are these animals losing habitat, they’re often injured or killed in the deforestation process, or when trespassing on plantations or fields in search of food. At Tanjung Putings visitor centre, we’ve seen pictures of orangutans that have been burnt alive.
Palm oil is used in a large variety of products (chips, shampoo, you name it), so it’s not easy to avoid. Only since this year, the EU is requiring companies to correctly mention the use of palm oil on their product labels. Maybe we should start thinking twice before buying these products in the supermarket, or that fancy garden set made of tropical hardwood…