Isabelle studies Geography at the University of Leeds and writes a poignant first-hand account of deforestation in Indonesia due to palm oil plantations.
‘Minyak kelapa sawit— palm oil’. Joel waved his arm carelessly across the landscape rolling by out the window. We were churning along a dirt track which separated two swathes of green on either side. ‘gel-lapa saveet’, my heavily anglicised repetition made Joel chuckle. ‘but these aren’t palm trees?’ Outside was the same rainforest mix which encircled the village in which I had spent the last two days. ‘No, not yet, soon…’.
On cue, the landscape changed. The road improved to well-maintained gravel. Through the window, the shifting tree canopy plateaued into monochrome regularity. Repeated, neat rows of palm trees zipped by. It was still green, it was still lush, but it was all the same.
The first time I saw such a plantation, my unaccustomed eyes saw only the trees. It looked like a rainforest for the ruthlessly methodical. Only after I walked through the jungle did these plantations begin to look like a desert. Only after I saw fires still burning did I understand how these areas were formed. Indeed, only after I shared lunch in Kuala Lumpar with someone tracking the big brand palm oil companies encouraging these fires did I realise the impact my buying habits were having.
Palm oil totals 30% of the world’s vegetable oil use. It comes from the palm fruit of the African oil palm tree. These low, squat palms will flourish anywhere with lots of heat and lots of rain. The equatorial area in which I was living was perfect; 85% of all palm oil exported is from Indonesia and Malaysia. During my year studying in Singapore, I was fortunate enough to bus and walk over much of Borneo and Sumatra. There I saw astounding calderas, dramatic star displays, wide eyed nocturnal wildlife and miles of rainforest too dense to enter. I also saw the areas most affected by palm oil exploitation.
To grow palm oil, large swathes of land need to be cleared. This is most effectively achieved by burning the rainforest. Planters can easily cross the charred land afterwards to sow oil palms. Before last year, I had never heard of ‘haze’, of ‘PSI’ or even really about palm oil. Encircled by palm oil producing islands, Singapore has little hope to avoid the effects of slash and burn farming. During my stay, I would be urged to stay inside when air pollution became too high. That the pollution can cross seas to affect another country so badly emphasised that pollution does not respect national borders. As I arrived back in Leeds, the news reached me about this year’s fires. They had hungrily spread across the flammable peat soils in Sumatra and become the worst on record. Greenpeace believe the daily emissions from these fires surpassed the daily average of the entire USA.
It is easy to accuse Indonesian farmers, but Britain is tainted by exactly the same history of clearance. Looking at hills grazed bare by sheep, unroamed by wolves, and our rivers and seas devoid of beaver and fish, I see history only repeating itself in the Malaysian archipelago.
The continuation of the fires is far from inevitable. It is the demand for cheap oil which encourages companies to turn a blind eye on the practises of farmers. We could make it financially viable to protect instead of destroy. Naturally, this comes with a whole host of other problems. How do we protect without it becoming a tourist destination for the aviation loving? How can local residents improve their livelihoods if they are not free to use the land as they wish? What right do we have to impose our ideals on them? These questions are important, unanswered and must be considered. To not question at all is to accept that the future is already determined.
My wanderings round Borneo and Sumatra showed me the impact I could have. It made me seriously rethink air travel and my buying choices. Luckily, groups such as the Rainforest Foundation have hacked through the green-washing to provide a clear list of sustainably sourced goods. However, the more I consider my lifestyle, the more a different system seems necessary. We need to stop thinking what we should buy, but whether we need to buy at all. Could we grow it on a verge and eat it? Could we change our diets to be more traceable? I was shocked at what I saw in Indonesia and Malaysia and once I came home the shock didn’t lessen. Instead I saw for the first time what truly is occurring here in the UK too.
It is hard to protect what you don’t know is missing. Our detachment from ‘nature’ means even our national parks are not natural. The threat of climate change emphasises that we need to enjoy our place within Earth’s systems. Like all co-operation, this hinges on giving back as much as we have been given. This can be fun; life is much more unexpected when it is not neatly organised. Though recent government decisions may rightly make environmentally-orientated citizens very angry, that frustration doesn’t need to be the ruling sentiment. We can each take control of our own impacts. As Joel continued ‘…once one [plantation] comes up, then they come and come and come; a big impact’. Maybe that phrase could no longer apply to palm oil trees, but to us.