Deforestation for Palm Oil

Chances are, you consume a packaged product that contains palm oil every day. It is the most abundantly used oil in world, often hailed as the ‘miracle oil’ due to its efficiency and stability. But did you know that the palm oil used in your food, hair products, cosmetics and cleaning products are directly linked to major global issues such as deforestation, wildlife habitat loss, climate change and indigenous rights abuses?

Malaysia and Indonesia dominate global palm oil production. These two countries account for almost 90% of all palm oil produced worldwide, so during a trip to Borneo over the summer, I took some time to look into the impacts the palm oil industry has on the environment, and some considerations we can all take in the battle to save the rainforests.

The majority of palm oil is still produced ignoring sustainable measures. In central Sabah, the land looks baron. Dried up, arid. You can only imagine what this vast space once was. Plantations are constantly under construction, and land that was once rich in biodiversity is now chopped and churned in the cyclic regurgitation of palm plantations for the purposes of mass palm oil production and exportation. After several hours of driving through central Sabah, I stopped to capture this scene, where in all directions, palm trees stretch as far as the eye can see.

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In Northern Borneo, over 70 different species of palm tree are known to grow within the rainforest. These areas are the natural habitat of over 1000 different species of mammal, amphibian, bird and fish, over 100 of which are endemic to Borneo. However, sections of rainforest just like this have been cleared to make way for the sheer number of trees required to meet the global demand for palm oil.

In doing so, an unnecessary contribution to global warming is made. The process of photosynthesis within plants reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In addition to this, the micro-climates around these areas shift, due to the rainforest surface albedo (sun’s reflectivity) and the amount of water vapour released into the atmosphere.

In the midst of these new areas, palm oil mills release green house gases into the environment, as well as being responsible for other environmentally damaging pollutants such as palm oil mill effluent.

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Whilst the Sabahan Government have designated protected areas of rainforest, deforestation in line with the continuing expansion of the palm oil industry has already had a major impact on biodiversity and ecosystems. Destruction of habitat has lead iconic species such as the Orang Utan, Pygmy Elephant, Sumatran Tiger and Sumatran Rhino to the verge of extinction.

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Wildlife enthusiasts flock to the Kinabatangan river for a chance to see some of Borneo’s rarest animals. Species such as the Orang Utan are driven to the riverbanks as narrow strips of their rainforest habitat on the edge of the river are all that remain following large scale deforestation. In some areas, these strips of land are so insignificant, palm plantations can be seen just a few metres away from the water.

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Tankers transport palm oil far and wide around Borneo. Here, the tankers drive through an area completely consumed by palm plantations. 

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Instead of attempting to limit the supply and demand of palm oil, many such products are actively endorsed.

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These problems can’t be solved by a blanket cut in usage of palm oil though. Life just isn’t that simple. With the yield of oil per hectare up to ten times greater than other vegetable oils such as sunflower and soy bean oil, shifting from palm oil to similar products could have an even more detrimental impact on the environment, not to mention the many balancing socio-economic consequences.

So what can we do? First of all be aware of what we are consuming. Does the product use RSPO (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil) certified oil? Is there an alternative product that eliminates the usage of vegetable oils altogether? Small changes can go a long way towards encouraging a large scale shift in the attitudes of sustainable palm oil consumption.

 

 

Tanah Torajah

*Warning – Graphic Content*

The Torajans occupy a mountainous area in South Sulawesi and are a group like no others. For them, life revolves around death, the most important thing for them is sending their loved ones to the afterlife with the respect that they deserve. Their funerals are expensive, elaborate and intriguing, but despite these fairly morbid undertones, they are some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. 

Typically, a small funeral will be held straight after death, with the the main ceremony held as soon as enoug money is raised. Families may live with the deceased for months or even years before the funeral is held, during which time they must talk to, dress and even feed their loved one, otherwise they risk showing a lack of respect. 

At the funerals, animals such as buffalo and pigs are sacrificed. The animals carry the spirit of the deceased into the afterlife. The money spent on the elaborate shows of love and respect is staggering, with prized buffalo costing as much as a new house. 

In order to witness this, my first job was getting to Sulawesi. Not so easy from central Flores, but 3 flights later (at least one of which having a potential gasoline bomb on board) I arrived in the island capital, Makassar. I was only there overnight before catching a bus first thing in the morning, so I went off in search of a cheap hostel. The one I was supposed to be staying at – the New Legends Hostel – turned out to be under renovation and had been for some time. “No worries,” I was told by a nearby porter, “you can just stay here instead.” And so I was pointed towards their sister hotel next door, which had the facade and interior of a posh 4* hotel. And what do you know? It was a posh 4* hotel, quite a step up from what I’m used to. But thanks to a combination of the renovation, the off season and my polished negotiating skills (if I say so myself), I ended up staying for a massively discounted price. The first comfy bed and hot shower I’d had in ages!

In the morning my Ojek driver took me to the wrong bus stop, before darting through the traffic to drop me off at the main terminal just in time. Sulawesi is another of Indonesia’s large islands, and consequently, you’re left lengthy bus journeys. The ride from Makassar to Rantepao in the heart of Tanah Torajah took over 10 hours, but being in the bus was like flying business class with huge seats that offered a near full recline. 

We checked into a home stay and started planning out our stay. Every six days there is an animal market in Rantepao where Torajans descend from all over the area in order to buy Buffalo, pigs, fish, chickens and more, all of which will ultimately be sacrificed at the funeral ceremonies. The magnitude of the market was fascinating with hundreds upon hundreds of animals on show. It was however quite disturbing to see the conditions the animals are kept in. Buffalos tied through their nose to overhead lines so they are unable to properly rest, fish left out of water, and pigs strapped down to bamboo tables, squealing constantly in pain and in search of freedom. It is definitely cruel, it is definitely inhumane, and it is definitely a scene I couldn’t bear to watch, but this is a normal day for them and an important part of their traditions and so should not be judged from a foreigners point of view. 

What’s more disturbing is the idea that tourism in the area is driven by an interest to witness a funeral first hand. And I was there for this reason too. Foreigners are welcome at the ceremonies provided that they, like the locals, bring gifts for the family. OK, foreigners don’t have to bring a pig along for sacrifice, but cigarettes and sugars suffice. 

   
    
   
A local told us a funeral was going on that day, so we followed him to a nearby village. He was a trainee tourist guide and obviously had a bit more work to do, because instead of taking us to the funeral, he took us to a burial instead. 2 very different things. We sat there for hours in supreme hospitality talking with the locals, being fed bamboo roasted pork (fresh from the previous day’s sacrifice) and coffee before joining in with the singing of the hymns. Finally, the whole community walked through the street singing and chanting as the coffin was carried off for burial in the caves.

After a pretty heavy first day, we decided to take a day off from the morbid and went trekking through the local villages. There is more stunning scenery here, as I’ve almost come to take for granted throughout Indonesia, and as you climb further into the hills, the views just get better and better. The architecture is fascinating, similar to the Batak archaic true of North Sumatra, many houses are built with elaborate curved roofs, boast intricately decorated walls and for noble families, sacrificed buffalo horns are collected and displayed on the entrance columns. The houses are always aligned north to south. Smaller versions of these are usually present and are used for rice storage. With these structures in mind, you get the sense that this area is very wealthy in general, especially when you think about the money spent on the funerals as well. 

Further into the countryside are some revered burial sites. Families are buried together and tombs are carved out in the rocks and cliffs in the hillside. Some cliffs host tens of families whereas some of the smaller ones host just one. 

   
    
   
That night we got wind of a large funeral ceremony in the north – the funeral of a Nobleman. We went the next day for the first day of what would turn out to be a four or five day ceremony. Given the family’s status it was a huge ceremony and it seemed that everyone from the nearby villages was attending. 

I had no idea quite what to expect, but, along with a gift bag of cigarettes and sugar, we followed the crowd and found the ‘arena’. I call it an arena for lack of a better word – bamboo stands had been erected surrounding a rectangular courtyard with entrances at the north and south. You walked up a slight hill to the main entrance, past grazing buffalo, and makeshift 7-11 stands selling drinks and snacks. Pigs were carried and dragged in to the arena and ditched in the central area, whilst a group of mourners formed a circle around offerings of meat and drinks, chanting and dancing to the gods. On top of that the master of ceremonies read in a deep, booming voice. Combined with the moans of the near lifeless pigs and the general noise from everyone attending, this was one of the most haunting and eerie environments I’ve ever been in. I think it’s safe to say we all felt quite uncomfortable. 

The buffalo were sacrificed outside due to their colossal size. The sacrifice of the pigs was performed in the arena. I’d expected a more ritualistic approach to the sacrifice. Maybe an announcement, a prayer, or even a warning. The pigs were killed with a stab to the heart, right in front of where we were standing. It was a bit much for me, and for the ethics that I’ve been raised with, but again, it’s normal here, and kids were free running around the arena, unfazed by the blood, unfazed by the screaming animals, and unfazed as their elders started cutting up the meat. Some even started mimicking their actions. In a few years time I guess it will be their job. 

It was an interesting day. Very interesting. But never again. 

That night I ate pork, slow cooked in bamboo. I didn’t even feel guilty.

   
    
    
    
   
The next day we left Tanah Torajah and went north to the lakeside town of Tentena in Poso district. When I arrived in Sulawesi I had planned on visiting the Togean Islands – a group of paradise islands with fabled dive spots – but due to the length of time to travel up there and the infrequent and unreliable ferry schedule, I abandoned those plans in Tentena. 

Instead, my last few days in Indonesia would be spent in a beautiful, sleepy lakeside town. Sleepy, but with plenty of surprises to keep me occupied. First and foremost is Seluopa Waterfall – a huge network or waterfalls and rock formations that goes on and on up into the hills. We followed the river back as far as we could and were rewarded with several picturesque lagoons, hidden away in the jungle. We ended up spending the whole afternoon here, and by the time we got some lunch and went back to town we had just enough time to visit the local villages before watching the sunset on the lakeside beach. 

   
    
 I had to fly out from Central Sulawesi as I didn’t have the time to make the long bus trips back to Makassar, but this meant spending a night in Poso. Poso is known as an area of conflict, where historically the Muslim and Christians…lets just say they don’t really get on all that well. Since an attack in 2005 that killed a number of locals and severely dented their tourist industry, things have been quiet there. Poso town itself is safe, with any trouble areas spreading out into the countryside. There was some great street food in town, but I was a little put off by the wanted signs on the street corners. The people here were so friendly and were just worried that they will never be able to shake off the reputation the previous conflicts have given the area.  
  
It wasn’t how I would have planned to spend my last night, but, my time in Indonesia had come to end. I’d spent two months crossing six different islands, yet still hardly making a dent in the country. I think I could explore Indonesia for a lifetime and still be amazed at the new things I saw every day. I will definitely be back, I just need to figure out when. 

Flores

The boat that took me from Lombok and through the Komodo National Park docked in Labuan Bajo, a harbour town on the North Western tip of the island of Flores. Labuan Bajo is the gateway to the famous diving locations around Komodo, and as such has been fairly westernised. There is an odd mix of authenticity and expensive looking newly built cafes and restaurants along the Main Street, some of which extend up into the hills, overlooking the harbour and out to see.

I’d planned on diving here, which would be my first time since doing a discover scuba dive on Koh Tao some four months ago. I’m still not sure why it took me so long to get round to, but I am now PADI qualified, meaning that I can dive anywhere in the world.

There were a whole host of dive centres in Labuan Bajo, I chose to do my course under a recommendation of Manta Rhei, who are run by a Belgian family, as friendly as they are knowledgable. The whole experience with them was fantastic – my instructor Tino made the course seem ridiculously easy and most of all enjoyable, and the long trips out to the dive sites were spent relaxing on the luxurious sun deck of their new boat, whilst eating the incredible home cooked food or chatting to the friendly staff about all things fish.

As a beginner, I missed out on a few of the more renowned dive sites due to the strong currents making them more suitable to experienced divers, but elsewhere in the crystal clear waters I saw plenty of exotic species of fish, turtles, sharks and more. I’ll definitely be back to try out the more advanced sites when I have a bit more experience!


After a group of us from the Komodo boat trip had finished getting our fix from an assortment of various dives and courses, we decided to head in land to the town of Bajawa, located way up in the mountains of central Flores.  It was a long drive from Labuan Bajo, but as there was a group of us it meant that we could hire a car for a reasonable price and make a few stops on the way as we wove through mountain passes and along plateaus of lush green rice fields, including the fascinating “spider fields” of Cancar, which are shaped in the form of a spiders web. The scenery was amazing throughout the trip, and the streets on each village we passed through were lined with kids waving to us as we passed. As we stopped for coffee in a small village (I don’t quite remember where) we were soon surrounded by a group of children who just wanted a hi five and a photo. This ended up in a game of foot-volleyball, where by the end the whole pitch was surrounded by what seemed like the whole village, cheering us on and laughing as we fell over and inevitably lost to our opposition, who were no more than ten years old.



Bajawa is a small town and forms a central base to the nearby traditional villages, where bamboo huts are the norm and women with betel stained teeth sell macadamia nuts and hand woven scarves. These electricity free villages seem to be a step back in time, but are home to some of the warmest, friendliest people you’re likely to meet, where family and tradition are the most (or only) important things.

To get to these villages you need to ride a bike through some beautiful mountain roads, which I’d rate better than the Hai Van Pass in my humble opinion. Steep 180 degrees switchbacks are the norm on these empty roads, each one providing stunning views over volcanos and out to sea. The scenery seemed a little more colourful than in other places I’ve been, with reds and oranges sitting in between the vast green jungle. It’s probably why the Portuguese named the island Flores (Flowers) all those years ago when they settled.


 We drove down to the towns on the coast, stopping off at the black sand beach and in the hills around the bay, but my highlight was the natural springs, where hot and cold streams mix, giving a perfect place to swim and relax.



 We left a few friends in Bajawa and went further east to Ende, a small harbour town on the south coast with a spectacular back drop of volcanos. There wasn’t much to do here, and struggled to even find a cup of coffee, the one coffee shop we did walk past was shut, and looked as though it had been that way for months, if not years.

Ende was a base to travel on to Kelimutu, a nearby volcano famous for its three crater lakes, each a different colour. The colours are also known to change, nobody knows when or to which colour they will change next, but it is due to the bacterial content of the lakes. It is an important place for the locals spiritually, as it is believed that when people die, their spirits remain in Kelimutu forever, and which lake they enter depends on their age and character whilst alive.

Motorbike rentals from Ende were hard to come by, but we eventually left with a small, underpowered yet expensive bike to share between two of us. This caused many problems as we went weaving into the mountains, picking up two flat tires along the way. What should have been a two hour journey took almost 4, meaning we arrived late, after closing time.

We had to sweet talk our way in, and were eventually allowed to go up to the peak after paying the entrance fee (150k for foreigners as opposed to 5k for locals!), where the sun was already setting. Being there after closing time was eerie, we had the whole place to ourselves as the sun dipped behind the mountains and the sky filled red. Two of the lakes were a dim green, but the third was filled a sky blue, looking almost like paint. It would have been great to be there for sunrise, as the sun would come up over the two lakes at the front rather than disappearing at the back, but I couldn’t complain with the atmosphere we had.


We were driving home through the fog, in the dark, on a dodgy bike with a dodgy light, when we had our third flat tire of the day. This time we were in the middle of nowhere, not that any repair shop would have been open at that time anyway. Retracing our steps slightly, we came across a truck full of locals at the side of the road who, as it happened, were on their way back to Ende. In a comical mix of broken English, Bahasa and sign language, we managed to persuade them to put us and the bike in the back of the truck and take us home. A funny end to a memorable road trip.


I left Flores after just over one week, and had one more surprise at the airport. My friend managed to get on board with a cigarette lighter and half a litre of left over fuel that was bought as spare for the motorbike rides. It’s a good job this place is largely unaffected by the problems of the western world.