Borneo’s Environmental Tragedy

image It’s been a long trip. About three months in, we probably would have decided to come home had it not been for the prospect of visiting Borneo. We had this fantastical idea of what it would be like. For Rebecca, she wanted to go to see orangutans in the wild. For my part, I thought that going to Borneo would be like the movie Congo, where we would meet a gorilla named Amy who would talk to us and protect us from the other bad gorillas. (Clearly, my brain confuses gorillas with orangutans.) In any case, we dreamt of an island wild and unspoiled. Thanks to the palm products industry and lack of awareness about wildlife conservation, the reality is quite different.

We arrived on Borneo by plane from Kuala Lumpur via Sandakan. Sandakan is the jumping off point for many of Malaysian Borneo’s nature tours, which is why we found ourselves there for a night. And much like many of the slightly-off-the-beaten-path places we have visited, it is under construction. There is a brand new, disproportionately large mall, two KFCs, and a riverfront walkway punctuated with construction projects soon to be cafes, dive shops and souvenir stands for tourists. We were there long enough to have a dinner of Tom Yum soup and curry, eat the world’s cheapest ice cream ($0.50 per scoop!), and catch up on our reading in our hotel room.

The next morning, we trekked over to the designated pick-up location – the Chinese savings and loan – and caught our ride into the “jungle” (you can’t see me, but I am making air quotes with my hands). I call it the “jungle” because mostly what we saw from the road was row after row of palm trees. The untrained eye may think it’s jungle, but really it’s just palm plantations.

Remember that hubbub a few years back about the Girl Scouts putting palm oil and sugar in their cookies, and the well-orchestrated and eventually successful campaign to stop it? This area of the world is where that palm oil came from. And thin mints are only the tip of the iceberg of palm products. Palm oil and palm sugars are in everything from hand lotion to crackers. The palm industry’s rainforest destruction is disastrous environmentally, but the industry employs many people in remote areas. So until we give those people something else to do, and a reason to preserve the forests, that industry isn’t going anywhere soon.

We were thrilled with what we were able to see, but again disappointed by the environment; lining the river that ran through the nature preserve was another gigantic palm plantation. Our nature guide seemed unperturbed by this. Didn’t he realize that his job and the palm plantation’s existence were in direct conflict with each other? To him, palms meant jobs and development. It is simply a fact of life.

Semporna was our second city in Borneo, similarly beset with palm plantation destruction. But to make matters worse, Semporna also happens to be the city that waste management forgot; it is completely covered in garbage. Locals toss their trash straight into the ocean, the marsh behind our hotel was filled to the brim with refuse, and there wasn’t a garbage can to be found for miles. I carried a coffee cup for about an hour before I found somewhere to put it.

Semporna is the diving off point for Sipadan, one of the top 10 dive sites in the world, so divers come from every corner of the globe to dive. Many stay on resorts off the coast of Borneo so they only see a little bit of Semporna proper, thereby missing the full extent of the trash problem. But I can assure you, the ubiquity of trash makes for a depressing dive experience overall. Off of Mabul, we descended in a flotilla of garbage and emerged in another 60 minutes later, and the other dives we did were similarly polluted.

Clearly these two cities are going through some growing pains (power and water went out many times while we were in each city, and we went a full day without both on Semporna), so there is some hope that things will get better as more money from tourism enters the local economy, since tourists don’t like to visit landfills. But our impression is that the lack of respect shown to the environment by the local population means it will be a long time before there is an improvement.

It’s going to take a lot to change this situation. For one, there needs to be a concerted effort to increase awareness about environmental conservation, to impress upon the locals the need to preserve the land for future generations. Communications in the US have been very successful in curbing pollution and littering, and increasing recycling, and Borneo needs that. But more than that, there has to be an economic solution. Palm plantations are bad, but it is huge. Will tourism be the silver bullet, creating enough economic growth for the region to replace the loss in palm product revenue? It’s going to take heroic amounts of marketing and lots of time for that to happen.

The upside of this story is that I left Borneo with a renewed commitment to environmental conservation. I had always considered myself an environmentalist, but never before had I seen first-hand the effects of natural destruction. The wildlife in Borneo is stunning, but if pollution and deforestation continues at the current pace, soon there won’t be much to visit. So if you want to visit Borneo, I suggest you do a little research for yourself and find an organization working to save the rainforest. I plan to give to the Rainforest Action Network when I get home and shop palm-free from now on, exercising my power of the purse.

Borneo deserves to be that fantastical jungle we thought it would be. But if we don’t demonstrate that we’re paying attention, it soon will be gone forever.

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