Twenty days before I had first set my eyes on Borneo, descending from a small plane onto Pontianak, a major city in West Kalimantan, the west side of Borneo. As we landed, all I could notice was a thick haze covering the city. It wasn’t fog or an overcast day, but smog that made a city look like a ghost town. Just then it began to sink in that the problems here are numerous. Deforestation wasn’t just about treehugging anymore. You could feel it in the air that it was about something greater than that.
Disembarking from the plane, the dry and arid heat hit me like a wave. It was evident that the climate had been reshaped from a once moist rainforest to desert-like conditions. Prior to this, Borneo was a unique place, the third largest island on Earth and home to the oldest rainforest at 130 million years old (older than the Amazon). It has been estimated that nearly half of the world’s plant and animal species once existed on this island, with many thousands of species that are endemic only to Borneo including the endangered Orang-utan.
Yet the land here is being transformed into an unrecognizable biological desert from rapid deforestation – and becoming part of the problem. For deforestation accounts for 16% of global greenhouse gas emissions, with Indonesia releasing more CO2 though deforestation than any other country. That piece of the carbon puzzle is more than the entire transportation sector – meaning that’s more than every car, truck, boat and plane on the planet.
Climate change was one thing, but there were also rich biological values in the rainforest that were at stake. Everything from medicinal plants that could hold the secrets for a cure to AIDS and cancers, to unique animal species found nowhere else in the world. Yet every time the forests are cleared these biological treasures are being lost, destroyed, or in the Orangutans’ case, use for entertainment, sold in body parts or exploited for the sex trade.
But that was purely the environmental side of the coin; what was happening in Borneo was also about human rights, something that was unchartered territory for me an eco-activist. Soon, I would come to find that deforestation meant the lands was being stolen from the Indigenous people of Borneo, called the Dayak. The very lands that the Dayak depend on for their food, their water, the parts to build their homes, their jobs with farming and for their very survival. I would also come to learn that when they fought back for their lands, they were beaten, arrested, humiliated and in some cases, killed. Much worse, the world wasn’t listening to them; they were voiceless in this struggle.
So why was this all happening? The driving factor was the palm oil industry. Palm oil is a small red fruit whose oils are increasingly desired by the West for cooking oil, cosmetics, cleaning products and ironically for biofuels. In industrial-scale palm oil, these plants flourish in vast monocultures that is to say single-specie agriculture. Imagine rows upon rows of palm trees as far as the eyes can see, the previously existing rainforest hacked away leaving but a few plants in its wake. This is a palm oil plantation. This is deforestation. And tthis is what we must stop.
The Borneo Diary is the story of Emily Hunter’s eco-campaign with DeforestACTION. The DeforestACTION project is a youth driven movement to protect the Borneo rainforest of Indonesia. Fifteen young people, including Emily, took part in a campaign in September on the on-ground in Borneo, with the support of millions of students & schools around the world.