Monday, May 22, 2017

Vanishing Borneo:  Saving One of the World’s Last Great Places

Borneo’s magnificent rain forest is being decimated to make way for oil palm plantations.  Consumers of the countless products made with palm oil, from toothpaste to chocolate bars, hold the key to protecting the most ancient forest on earth.

Receding forest on a mountainside in West Kalimantan province in Borneo. (Credit: AFP/Getty Images) Click to Enlarge.
Palm oil is the second-most important oil in the modern consumer society, after petroleum.  Producing it is a $50-billion-a-year business.  It’s in a multitude of the household products in North America, Europe, and Australia:  margarine, toothpaste, shampoo, lipstick, cookies, Nutella, you name it.  Doritos are saturated with palm oil.  It’s what gives chocolate bars their appetizing sheen – otherwise, they would look like mud.  Palm oil has replaced artery-clogging ghee as India’s main cooking oil.  India is now the major consumer of this clear, tasteless oil squeezed from the nuts of the oil-palm tree, Elais guyanensis, originally from West Africa, but now grown pantropically, mainly within ten degrees north and south of the Equator.

Indonesia and Malaysia chose palm oil as their main economic engine after independence in the 1960s, and they together account for 85 percent of world production, which is expected to double by 2050.   As oils go, palm oil gives you the best bang for your buck.   Soy fields yield far less than rows of oil-palm trees and have to be replanted annually, while the palms keep bearing huge clusters of oil-rich nuts for 20 years, and can then be replaced.  In 2015 17 million hectares of oil palm yielded a total of 62 million tons of oil, while the 120 million hectares planted in soy yielded 48 million tons.  Palm oil doesn’t lose its properties when it’s heated, or become rancid at room temperature, and it has multiple industrial uses. It is the edible vegetable oil of choice and is not going away.

Borneo is ground zero for oil-palm devastation.  Nowhere has more native rain forest been wiped out.  The world’s third-largest island, Borneo’s lower 73 percent is in Indonesia— the territory of Kalimantan— and its upper portion consists of two states in Malaysia, Sarawak and Sabah, separated by the small, oil-rich sultanate of Brunei.  Fifty percent of  the lowland Borneo rain forest, which once covered all of the island up to 10,000 feet, is gone, but it’s still the third-largest in the world, after the Amazon and Equatorial Africa’s.  It is part of the most ancient rain forest— forest, period— on earth: 130 million years old, more than twice as old as the Amazon’s, and has the greatest density of higher plant species, an estimated 15,000 flowering species.  Each new botanical or entomological expedition comes back with new species.  Some 20,000 insect species have been found in Sarawak’s Gunung Mulu National Park alone.

Read more at Vanishing Borneo:  Saving One of the World’s Last Great Places

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