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Borneo: Beautiful But Brutalised

Gallery 1 The beauty and biodiversity of Borneo's remaining jungles is staggering.

All photography ©Trai Anfield

I must admit that for a split second as we landed at Sandakan airport I thought “oh wow - look at all those palm trees - how exotic!” It's an inbuilt reaction.

But even as the plane wheels skidded along the airstrip I remembered that these trees are the reason the orang-utans, sunbeams and pygmy elephants we’ve come so far to see are so endangered. For these are not the LA-type glamour palm tree - these are African oil palm Elaeis guineensis, farmed to produce palm oil. Palm oil itself is not a bad thing: the scale of its production, and the abuse of the environment and communities involved in its production, most definitely is.

The fact that the trees have been planted right up to the edge of the airfield is a clue to how widespread they are here, but nothing prepared me for the relentless, lifeless tracts of plant matter we would have to drive through to reach just a tiny pocket of remaining jungle where we could hope to see orang-utan in the wild.

After 5 minutes of driving through a solid mass of trees I started to think “crikey there are a lot”. After 20 minutes of unbroken palm stands I thought “Oh hell this really is bad”. After two and a half hours of driving through nothing but regimented ranks of dark and sterile plantations I had quite simply lost the will to look out of the window any more.

I’ve never found a plant so sinister. This is nothing short of a post-apocalyptic environment. Nothing else is allowed to survive here. During burnoff the animals, including orang-utan, flee and face starvation, babies are captured for illegal animal trading, and mothers are butchered for parts in the traditional medicine trade. Even when established, these trees are actively policed to prevent any wildlife gaining any nutrition or shelter from them.

But the animals have no choice but to trespass into the plantations, searching for just a little food from the billions of palm fruits, as the palms have almost completely replaced their beautifully balanced and biodiverse jungle habitat.

I’m not a fan of those who evangelise after a brief trip somewhere, but this issue is so critical I can’t just come home and show some pretty pictures of the few remaining orangutang and pretend it’s all ok.

Gallery 2 Unfortunately the beauty of Borneo's jungles is being lost to palm oil plantations, with apocalyptic consequences for wildlife, the environment and communities

Photography credits: various

Apart from the extensive deforestation and biodiversity loss I saw, other environmental threats from palm oil plantations include water pollution, soil erosion, carbon emissions resulting from land use change (many palm oil plantations are built on top of existing peat bogs, and clearing the land for palm oil cultivation contributes to rising greenhouse-gas emissions), forest fires, and pesticide use.

The social consequences are no better: indigenous rights are a concern as oil palms engulf indigenous land and governments marginalise their own communities from the benefits of development through corruption. Use of illegal immigrants in the palm oil industry inevitably raises concerns about working conditions too.

So what can we do to stop this horror?

On the face of it it’s easy: you don’t have to go to Borneo, rescue animals from flaming forests or chain yourself to a tree - just check the ingredients in the products you use every day.

More than 50% of packaged supermarket products from margarine and oven chips to soaps and detergents, plus beauty products including lipstick can contain palm oil). Just choose to buy makes without ‘dirty' palm oil in.

Hitting their profits is one of the most effective ways to tell the worst offending giants like Colgate, Johnson & Johnson, Pepsi, Kraft, Oreo, Dominos, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Burger King and MacDonalds that wrecking the planet is not acceptable.

The following products are just some of the products likely to contain palm oil:

  • Bread

  • Crisps

  • Soap

  • Ice Cream

  • Shampoo

  • Chocolate

  • Biscuits

  • Make Up

  • Non-dairy substitutes

  • Cooking Oil

  • Margarine

  • Cleaning Detergent

A handy guide to palm oil products is published by Ethical Consumer at

…But is it really that simple?

Aware that consumers disapprove of wreaking havoc on the environment, many large firms now cynically hide the use of palm oil, by calling it different names on their labelling.

The following ingredients are listed by WWF as ones to watch: some - like "vegetable oil" – aren’t always made from palm oil, but they certainly can be:

1. Elaeis guineensis 2. Etyl palmitate 3. Glyceryl 4. Hydrogenated palm glycerides 5. Octyl palmitate 6. Palm fruit oil 7. Palm kernel 8. Palm kernel oil 9. Palm stearine 10. Palmate 11. Palmitate 12. Palmitic acid 13. Palmitoyl oxostearamide 14. Palmitoyl tetrapeptide-3 15. Palmityl alcohol 16. Palmolein 17. Sodium kernelate 18. Sodium laureth sulfate 19. Sodium lauryl lactylate/sulphate 20. Sodium lauryl sulfate 21. Sodium palm kernelate 22. Stearate 23. Stearic acid 24. Vegetable fat 25. Vegetable oil

In fact any ingredient that includes these words are highly likely to be derivatives from palm oil.

how to spot palm oil derivatives in ingredient lists

Worldwide Fund for Nature advice is to look for the RSPO label, which indicates that certified sustainable palm oil is being used i.e. palm oil produced in environmentally responsible ways, and as part of poverty alleviation strategies.

Notable champions of sustainable palm oil use in 2018 include Nestle, Ferrero, Dunkin’ Donuts, and M&S.

However recent reports indicate that RSPO is flawed and certified supplies don’t protect the environment and communities much at all. They need help and monitoring to ensure regulations are more strictly adhered to.

In response, Iceland in the UK has dropped all palm oil from its products until it can verify whether supplies are truly sustainable. That sounds good, but simply using alternatives to palm oil can lead to even more deforestation because rapeseed, soya and sunflower yields per hectare are considerably lower. Also, millions of people working in the sector will be catastrophically disadvantaged if all production is just stopped.

So what can we really do?

It is a complicated situation, and we can only do what we can do. The actions I've come up with that I can manage personally are three-fold: if you can do any one of these too it will make a huge difference.

  • reject brands that blatantly use dirty palm oil and buy from those who are at least committed to trying to improve certified production

  • sign up to support Greenpeace an organisation that successfully investigates and exposes environmental and social issues, takes direct action and lobbies large companies and governments on my behalf to provide workable sustainable solutions

  • donate to organisations actively running conservation initiatives in Borneo - like the Orangutan Foundation or the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

Do let me know what your own thoughts are on this issue - if there’s more I can do I will.

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