Monkey Business

We’re currently stuck in Tawau, Malaysia, a small port town on the Indonesian border on the southeastern coast of Borneo. It’s raining and we’ve got to hang around for tomorrow’s ferry. The good news is that there’s actually a cinema in town. So we might spend the rainy day at the movies. Extravagant, I know.

Our time in Borneo has been muddy but fun. After leaving Brunei, we spent a few days in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of the State of Sabah, the eastern-most state in Malaysia.

Sen in bed

Baby Sen

We then headed to Sandakan, home of the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. The center rescues baby orangutans that have been kept as pets or who have lost their parents due to logging for palm oil plantations. They teach the babies how to find food in the forest, climb trees and build nests (they build a new nest each evening to sleep in). Rehabilitated orangutans are then released into the forest. Since many are still semi-reliant on the center, they have twice daily feedings that the public can view.  So we elbowed our way to the front of the crowd to watch a few red-headed great apes snack on bananas and sugar cane. It was great fun. We were inspired by the work done at the center and decided to adopt a baby orangutan. His name is Sen. He gets his red hair from me.

At the risk of giving a “short course” for which my family is famous, I want to add a quick note about palm oil. The majority of Malaysia’s rainforests have been plowed down to make way for palm plantations. Demand for this oil continues to rise since its used as a biofuel and it is trans-fat free. The scale of these plantations is staggering. It’s as if the remaining parcels of rainforest are tiny islands in a massive ocean of palm plantations. I know I like to exaggerate and have a flair for drama, but I can’t be more serious about this. Most of our travel around Sabah has been by bus, and looking out the window, all we saw for hours on end is palm tree after palm tree. So what’s wrong with that? They’re trees, right? Trees are good for eating up CO2, so how can it be a bad thing? I’ve researched the subject a little and have found that there’s quite a lot wrong with this. Here’s the short list:

  1. Cutting down the rainforest trees destroyed habitat for several endangered species including: pygmy elephants, orangutans, pygmy elephants, Sumatran tiger and rhinoceros. There are also several species that aren’t currently listed as endangered, but it might not be long till they are: gibbons, wild boar, mouse deer, hornbills and proboscis monkey. These creatures are now trying to hang on in tiny protected areas, but are still in danger.
  2. Clearing the land released massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, both from cutting and burning the trees and from digging up the peat bogs which huge carbon sinks.
  3. The plantations grow only one tree: Arecaceae Elaeis. When an area is planted with only one species, known as monoculture, several problems arise.  To name a few: overuse of insecticides and pesticides, reduced quantities of food available for animals and both food and basic supplies for native people, the list goes on…
  4. The land will never be the same. The palms permanently alter the chemical composition of the soil, so even if the plantations were cut down and allowed to return to their native state, it would take decades of their laying fallow before native species could even begin to start growing.
From WWF (

From WWF (

I hope you all are still with me and my palm oil digression/lecture didn’t spoil this blog entry for you. It was just so disheartening to see mile after mile of palm plantations. Here’s an interesting image from WWF’s website  (at right) showing the ever-decreasing rainforest acreage on the island of Borneo. So you may be wondering what you can do. At least, I hope you are! So here are some simple solutions:

  1. Try not to buy items with palm oil in them. This is a lot easier said than done, especially since palm oil  is sometimes listed as vegetable oil.  I’m currently searching for a reliable list of palm-oil free products. I’ll post it as soon as possible.
  2. Know where your products come from. FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) is an independant NGO that certifies products from responsibily managed forests. Be careful – forestry companies have their own certification group (funny how that works). Look for the FSC label when buying products, especially lumber. Here’s their website: Remember:  Almost everything made from wood and other forest products is available with the FSC label.
  3. Eat locally. Eat organic. There’s no palm oil available at my local farmer’s market!
  4. Learn more about palm oil. Here are some links:

“Let us remember, always, that we are the consumers. By exercising free choice, by choosing what to buy, what not to buy, we have the power, collectively to change the ethics of the business of industry. We have the potential to exert immense power for good – we each carry it with us, in our purses, cheque books, and credit cards.” – Jane Goodall, “A Reason for Hope”

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. Our next stop on the trip was to the Kinabatangan River Valley. The Kinabatangan is the second longest river in Sabah and, thanks to organizations life WWF Malaysia, has become a wildlife corridor. The adventure on the river was so amazing that it deserves its own blog entry, so you’ll have to wait till tomorrow to find out whether I got to snuggle with an orangutan in its nest or not.


2 responses to “Monkey Business

  1. I’m waiting on my “palm free” list. I do better when people tell me what and what not to get.
    Miss you two.

  2. Hey CeCe – you can ditto this tirade for most of modern agriculture. Any system in which ONE plant or animal is raised at the exclusion of all others does huge damage to the ecosystem – in any part of the world. This is just another great reason to support local small and diversified farms!

    Craig and I can’t wait for our favorite Future Farmers to come home! We miss you!

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