The Palm Oil Dilemma

The Palm Oil Dilemma (published in Living Vegan magazine)

Flying over Sabah, in East Malaysian Borneo there stands row after row of palm oil plantation, engulfing the countryside and swallowing the rich diversity of the famous jungle. These plantations have eaten away at a continent once ample in species, its diversity stunted by the small red palm oil fruit whose popularity has extended to all reaches of the world. The rains have ceased and the animals are scarce, and once abundant jungle has disappeared into desolate plantation; an inhospitable environment whose only inhabitants are cobras and rats.

It has been labelled by critics as environmental Armageddon. The palm oil industry’s decimation of delicate ecosystems and biodiversity has swept from the plains of Africa to the lush jungle of Borneo, overwhelming the worlds oldest forest and devastating fragile species. Since palm oil’s discovery in 1848, plantations have sprouted across Sumatra and Borneo, the ripe fruit of the oil palm soiling the countryside, yielding up to ten times more oil per hectare than sunflowers, rapeseed or soybeans. The product is now one of the most ubiquitous vegetable oils on earth, and can be found in food, cosmetics and household products, as well as being touted as a biofuel.

The 1980s witnessed a remarkable transformation of Borneo’s landscape; forests were levelled at a rate unparalleled in human history, making way for the oil palm that ultimately set the forest and its inhabitants on a path to extinction. Now, Malaysia and Indonesia are the biggest palm oil suppliers (supplying 85% of the world’s palm oil) and subsequently one of the worlds biggest carbon dioxide emitters. Environmental conscience ranks low to both countries, who are generating wealth at an unprecedented level; their burgeoning economic power lifting millions out of poverty.


The situation is convoluted and rife with corruption. Borneo possesses a vast, sullied playing field where companies log forests both legally and illegally. This excess of illegal logging induces savage forest fires, poaching, wildlife trade and incarceration; igniting a conservation emergency of global proportions. Criminal activity in these areas is largely unpunished; boundaries between legal and illegal actions are blurred so that palm oil is distributed and consumed by the masses, with no definitive awareness of the link back to the orphaned and displaced animals that are victims of torture, incarceration or death at the hands of palm oil companies. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has estimated that 73-88% of all timber logged in Indonesia is illegal, irrevocably harming the entire framework and purpose of protected forest areas worldwide.

The most curious of the jungle wildlife is the orang-utan, or ‘Person of the Forest’ in Malay. Disconcertingly similar to humans, their vulnerability and gentle nature are both an attraction and novelty to humanity, who covet them, concurrently protecting them and torturing them in their quest to consume natures greenery.

At the forefront of the effort to preserve the orang-utan is Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC). The centre lies on the edge of virgin rainforest, a sprawling development funded by Sabah Wildlife Department that has been working tirelessly for 48 years trying to put displaced orphans back into the jungle. The centre is primarily home to the famous orang-utan, though it also houses the largely unknown and endangered Borneo Sun Bear whose fame, unfortunately has not reached worldwide proportions like the orang-utan.

The orang-utan rehabilitation process is long and difficult. The majority of cases are rescued from plantations as infants and will spent the next 3-5 years being raised by humans; learning to climb, search for food and generally fend for themselves until they are strong enough to make it in the wild. Since inception, SORC has rehabilitated over 700 orang-utans; some have bred, some have perished alone in the jungle, some have wandered back to the centre and are now lurking around every corner, stealing tourist camera’s and food, both distressing and delighting the visitors.


Orang-utans across the world are exploited, kept as pets, used as sex slaves, killed in plantations, and in some areas, eaten. Efforts are being made to rescue and rehabilitate them, but there are still a multitude of species whose habitats and lives are destroyed in the quest for financial gains. Orang-utan rescue and rehabilitation is notably successful, however, as a government run enterprise, it must balance the exploitation of the orang-utan (by way of touristic attraction) with rehabilitation.

Apart from primate genocide, the rapacious logging across Borneo has threatened many other native Indonesian and Malaysian animal species, such as the Sumatran tiger, Asian rhinoceros, Sumatran rhinoceros, Bornean sun bear, pygmy elephant, clouded leopard and proboscis monkey. A sequence of national and international initiatives have been implemented in response to this crisis, however, the situation must be recognised as a state of emergency and more needs to be done immediately, rather than planning long term. Much of the forests across Borneo have already been logged, and most of the species have become endangered as a result of this. The time to act is now.


Natalie Kyriacou

Director, My Green World

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