From The Field: Borneo’s Tanjung Puting National Park And The High Stakes Of The Palm Oil Crisis

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Community members watch an excavator tear down and dig a drainage canal in one of the last areas of natural forest remaining in the buffer zone of Tanjung Puting

Both the Sekonyer Community and endangered orangutans are losing their forest homes.

Since joining RAN’s forest program over two years ago, I have read and written about the many dire consequences of industrial scale palm oil plantations in Indonesia: one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, critical habitat for endangered species like orangutans destroyed, gross human rights abuses and labor conditions, and social conflict between communities that depend on the forests for their livelihoods and the companies destroying those forests. But until recently, my personal connection to all of this remained largely academic.

Our trip to the wilds of Borneo this month after attending the annual meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has transformed my theoretical understanding of the problems with palm oil. The experience of witnessing these impacts in person has been staggering, and I found it hard to believe that, even on the edge of a globally treasured, protected area, I was able to document one of the most severe cases of active forest destruction from palm oil expansion I have heard about to date.

What I saw during the four days we toured the forests surrounding Borneo’s Tanjung Puting National Park was more extraordinary and devastating than anything I could have imagined. The weight of my realization about what’s at stake hit me hard the day we spent walking through old-growth tropical rainforest, seeing wild orangutans, Horn Bills, Proboscis monkeys, and the recent evidence of a Sun Bear clawing a tree for honey, followed by an afternoon watching an excavator tearing down towering trees and digging a drainage canal into one of the last areas of natural forest remaining in the buffer zone of the park. We were on the edge of a community agroforestry project designed to demonstrate an alternative to destructive monoculture in an area almost entirely razed to make way for palm oil plantations.

We watched, horrified, as an irreplaceable hotspot of biodiversity fell before our eyes, two majestic Horn Bills flew overhead, and an endangered Red Langur monkey peered at us through the trees.

After spending a full day documenting human rights abuses with our allies from Save Our Borneo, an organization working on the frontlines of Central Kalimantan’s palm oil expansion crisis, RAN forest team member Lafcadio Cortesi and I took a night bus across Borneo from the city of Palangkaraya to Pangkalanbun. Even though the landscape was shrouded in darkness, the endless sea of sterile palm oil plantations beyond the road stood out throughout our entire 11 hour journey — a grim reminder that the province of Central Kalimantan has one of the fastest rates of oil palm expansion in Indonesia, perhaps even in the world.

The Sekonyer River

The Sekonyer River

Around 4am we arrived in the small port town of Kumai at the office of Friends of the National Parks Foundation (FNPF), the incredible organization my colleague Laurel visited in Bali earlier this year that also operates community development and reforestation projects in Borneo. I collapsed in a makeshift bunk bed and fell asleep to the sounds of Indonesian sunrise: distant speakers blaring Muslim calls to prayer, a singing gecko, a rooster crowing, and a chainsaw running somewhere behind the little house we slept in.

A few hours later we were racing to the edge of the Kumai River on motorbikes to travel by speed boat to the Sekonyer River, the gateway to Tanjung Puting National Park. Tanjung Puting is a globally recognized biosphere reserve and an unparalleled diversity hotspot. It’s home to many endangered species such as orangutans and Clouded leopards. Despite the incredible importance of Tanjung Puting, the park and its surroundings — the buffer zone — are under threat from illegal logging and mining operations and, most ominously, the encroachment of palm oil.

The reckless, short-sighted expansion of palm oil plantations in Central Kalimantan is pushing many of these species to the brink of extinction, literally leaving them with nowhere to go. The disappearing rainforest we witnessed falling is sandwiched between the Sekonyer River, the national park, and 10,000 hectares of plantations. Inside the national park, orangutans have more hope of survival. But orangutans can’t swim, so when we saw a pregnant orangutan mother with her young children on the west side of the river — where the forest was actively being converted to oil palm plantation — my heart sank.

Oil Palm on Peat

Oil Palm on Peat

The deeper in we got, the more severe the problems. The drainage canals along the edge of the plantations were filled with the dark black water of dissolved peat soil — highlighting the troubling reality that the much of this plantation was on top of carbon-rich peat soils and thus emitting massive amounts of CO2 as it rots upon being exposed to the air. In the converted peatlands, many of the oil palms were growing sideways and some even falling over. It seemed certain that the yields were marginal and the costs — the loss of a thriving and rare ecosystem and community livelihoods — was great. It seemed sure the Indonesian law prohibiting conversion of deep peatlands was being violated.

Responsible for this mess is BW Plantations, an RSPO member with about 100,000 hectares (240,000 acres) of oil palm plantations in Central and East Kalimantan. In addition to its draining of peatlands and destroying primary forests right up against a national park filled with many of the world’s last orangutans, the company is also grossly disrespecting the rights of the local community.

Community secretary Mr. Taufik delivers an impassioned speech about the community's resistance to palm oil expansion. The banner reads: PT Bumi Langgeng Return  Community Rights

Community secretary Mr. Taufik delivers an impassioned speech about the community's resistance to palm oil expansion. The banner reads: PT Bumi Langgeng Return Community Rights

The vibrant village of Tanjung Harapan on the Sekonyer river has over 100 families who are actively opposing the palm oil plantation and its expansion. Immediately upon entering the village by water, we saw two huge protest banners and a large sign reading, “PT Bumi Langgeng: Return the Rights of the Sekonyer Community.” The community members depend on the forest for their livelihoods and see the encroaching palm oil as a threat to their reliance on community food gardens, agroforestry, and fishing. They are angry that the palm oil plantation has used over 2,200 hectares (over 5,000 acres) of their village lands without any consultation or approval.

During our stay in the Sekonyer community, we slept under mosquito nets on a boat on the river’s edge. Our second night we met with community leaders and they told us their story. We learned that the community has been at odds with the palm oil company PT Bumi Langgeng, a subsidiary of BW Plantations, for many years over a land conflict. In the last several months, community resistance has escalated as land clearing continues at breakneck speed. I could actually hear the bulldozers demolishing forest from the community garden — to say it was unsettling would be a major understatement.

Mother and baby orangutan at Camp Leakey

Mother and baby orangutan at Camp Leakey

When the company cut down the community’s native rubber trees around six months ago, it triggered the first demonstration. Police showed up but no one was arrested. The latest demonstration took place just a few months ago after community leaders sent formal letters of complaint to the company as well as the district, provincial, and national governments seeking recognition of their lands, compensation for the 2,200 ha. of community land already taken by the company, and a halt to further expansion into forests and remaining community lands. Community members blocked the canal from the palm oil plantation to the main river. So far they have not received any response.

This is the true cost of palm oil. Is it worth it?

As the cheapest, highest-yielding vegetable oil and now the most heavily traded edible oil in the world, I understand that companies benefit from this lucrative industry so dependent on cheap labor and precious yet cheap rainforests. But at what price are we going to continue expanding this commodity? Expansion of palm oil into ecological and cultural hotspots needs to stop. The community of Sekonyer needs our support to secure their rights and justice. The time is ticking for the orangutans and other species depending on the forests — if they can’t be protected from palm oil expansion on the edge of a national park, the prospects for responsible palm oil look grim.

8 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Thanks for sharing this journey, the issues and the amazing photos Ashley.

  2. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for this intense information. I will spread the word.

  3. John Schaeffer says:

    Amazing photography, a very touching story, and a call to action for all of us. The orangutans are begging for our help. Thanks for opening our eyes.

  4. Marisa East says:

    This is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. Most of my friends have vowed to do as much as they could to stop the consumption of palm oil and I feel this article will help more people to understand the horrors of palm oil.

  5. Sue Griffiths says:

    Not enough is being done to stop this rape of the land. What on earth needs to be done to wake people up to the plight of indigenous people, the orangutans and other wildlife?

  6. Len says:

    I’ve lived in Indonesia for the past 13 years and watched the country’s wanton destruction of its rich biodiversity with depressed horror. There’s only one way to stop oil palm expansion – as consumers, we have to reject products that contain it. Otherwise, supply will always meet demand. Unfortunately, I’m by no means optimistic that a boycott among Western consumers is a viable strategy, for Chinese consumers will always be willing to fill-the-gap. Witness China’s $4 billion lure a few years back for conversion of upland rainforests in Borneo to oil palm – fortunately rejected by the Indonesian government.

  7. Tanjung Puting was probably not quite large enough and now that the place has been entirely closed in by oil palm plantations that is becoming clearer. It has been said Indonesia has enough reserves and really only needs to improve protection of its existing reserves. I think the Tanjubng Puting experience indicates that Indonesia needs more reserves and needs to both expand many of its presently protected areas and improve protections while there is still time to do it.

  8. UntungS says:

    There are always another sides of the world reality that Sekunyir community were not received the development of oil palm. Now they welfare stay on behind then their neighbor village called desa Bedaun. To be honest I would like to inform that now desa Bedaun becoming the Best Performance among Desas (villages) in all Kotawaringin Barat (Regency)and even will be competed to Province level due to the economics and welfare standards recently. We should aware that every single country has their own country privilege and their own regulations in term of SPATIAL PLANING for development. If the Government of Republic of Indonesia gives the license (letter of agreement or permission)refer to Spatial Planing, everyone who has the right by law are welcome. I am suggesting that Indonesia people, especially local people want be the same as others with welfare, quality of life and now is about the process. Yes, country privilege should be appreciated because it is the RIGHT to the development and of course with the uniqueness of country’s rules and regulations. .

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