As our ship is heading north through the Strait of Malacca (on our way from Borneo towards Kuala Lumpur), I look at the many freighters and tankers that also pass through this narrow, busy marine highway. I can barely see them. The haze in the air is that dense.
Borneo, a giant, rugged island in Southeast Asia’s Malay Archipelago, is shared by the Malaysian states Sabah and Sarawak, Indonesian Kalimantan and the tiny nation of Brunei. It’s known for its beaches and ancient, biodiverse rainforest, home to wildlife including orangutans and clouded leopards. In Sabah is 4,095m-tall Mt. Kinabalu, the island’s highest peak, and, offshore, the famed dive site Sipadan Island. Population: 18.59 million (2009)
Perhaps you have heard; the rainforests in south-east Asia are burning. In the past 5 months alone over 7,000 square miles of rain forest have been destroyed by fire, causing what some believe to be the worst global environmental disaster in a decade. The fires in Indonesia produce more air pollution per day than the entire US economy.
The practice of burning is used by palm oil and paper companies to clear land for the establishment of plantations. The fact that 2015 has been an exceptionally strong El Nino year resulting in drought conditions in the forests has made the fires, which have been going on for years, worse. Drained peat bogs which are super-rich carbon deposits also caught fire, filling a vast region with a seemingly impenetrable blanket of smoke. Millions of children had to stay home from school, air plane traffic had to be diverted as a result of the air pollution and, in severe cases, infants have died.
I often wonder why I am so driven to travel. I know it has something to do with the thrill of finding a proboscis monkey in the wild and looking for the right angle to capture this beautiful animal. But there is more to my seemingly insatiable hunger to witness, experience and communicate with the natural world. Is it my not-so-subtle fear that 25 years or 50 years from now I will no longer be able to find orangutans, that I won’t be able to capture polar bears in my pictures or find glaciers no matter how high I climb?
It is easy to get discouraged, and it is then that digging deeper into a subject can be helpful. In my quest to better understand the crisis in the tropical rain forests, I came across this article from grist.org. It is a long read, so here is the essence of the message I was able to take away from the piece: It only took two highly dedicated people (Glenn Hurowitz, Managing Director of Climate Advisors and Scott Poynton of The Forest Trust) to persuade Kuok Khoon Hong, CEO of Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil corporation, to only buy palm oil from farms that employ sustainable farming practices and do not engage in deforestation. It was their persistent, wise and compassionate approach in negotiating with the dealers of palm oil and the consumer companies (like Unilever) that eventually led to 90% of all stakeholders in the global palm oil trade to agree to a “no burning” policy. This happened in late 2013.
So why are the forests still burning? Well, not all of the palm oil companies are fully committed, some are back-sliding and despite the progress made consumer brands like Burger King, McDonalds and Kraft are still not backing de-forestation free palm oil production. Also, financial institutions like Goldman Sachs in Singapore use environmental policy frameworks that are weak and do not go far enough in demanding sustainable practices from their clients.
Still, the momentum has picked up speed and, as the article says: “…the accepted norm has shifted…”. Protest rallies by NGOs and environmental groups have their purpose. Scott Poynton says: “People won’t change unless they are uncomfortable. NGOs are agents of discomfort.” Agreed! But it is people like Hurowitz and Poynton that do the heavy lifting behind the headlines and the TV cameras. In my opinion, they are the real agents of change towards sustainability.
Witnessing Borneo’s jungle forest and its not-so-human residents was thrilling beyond words. I continue to stare at my pictures of monkeys, crocodiles, the Bornean bearded pig and the pit viper snake in awe of the diversity of species and the community of living creatures that call this big island their home. How much of Borneo did I explore? Perhaps 1%, knowing very well that the island’s interior is on fire and probably will be for some time to come. But there are encouraging signs that environmental awareness is making its way into the board rooms of those corporations, that have been responsible for widespread rain forest destruction and only to gain from more sustainable business practices.