(From THE FAR EASTERN ECONOMIC REVIEW)
By Peter Ritter Wall Street Journal
Our guide, Gerald, points to a spot 15 meters above us in the canopy. "There. Look over there. In the trees," he says. In the crook of two branches, nearly obscured by the foliage, we see a nest about the size of an eagle's made from leaves and sticks. Something moves. Leaves flutter to the jungle floor. A blur of orange. Gerald puts a finger behind his ear and cocks his head to listen. Mmooww. Mmooww. The call echoes around the forest, already receding into the impenetrable green. It sounds like a whale's song. "Orangutan," Gerald whispers.
The encounter is tantalizingly brief, both because we've spent hours hiking through muddy rainforest infested with leeches -- later I will lift my shirt and find a chorus line of the vile things, squirming and swollen with blood, on my stomach -- and because the animal we're looking for is one of the world's rarest and most threatened.
By some estimates, there are only 50,000 orangutans left in the remote forests of Borneo and Sumatra, where they are classified as critically endangered. Their declining population, along with their peculiarly expressive features -- "orangutan" means "man of the forest" in Malay -- has made them a poignant symbol for many conservationists of the despoliation of Asia's environment. Danum Valley, 43,800 hectares of lowland dipterocarp rainforest in Malaysian Borneo, may be one of the last, best places to catch a glimpse of these arboreal apes in the wild.
But if the orangutan is the star in Danum, he also has a stellar supporting cast: gibbons, whose laughing call sounds like a man slowly catching onto a joke; meter-long monitor lizards baking on the riverbanks; tarsiers, pocket-sized nocturnal primates whose enormous eyes seem to describe a sense of wonderment with the waking world; serpent eagles and flying snakes; and Sumatran rhinoceroses, so rare that only around 300 remain.
Seen at eye level, Borneo's rainforest is everything you want it to be. This is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet, with up to 200 different species of tree per hectare. Together, they form a canopy so opaque that it is twilight at midday, so impenetrable that daily afternoon rainstorms register only as a faraway patter. The canopy is a lepidopterist's paradise.
Clouds of butterflies flit in the gloom, including the famous Rajah Brooke's birdwing, with wings painted neon green against a velvet canvas. Beneath the sheltering ceiling grows an impossibly exotic garden, from orchids to the rafflesia, a parasitic flower that can grow to a nightmarish 40 inches in diameter. Pygmy elephants crash about in the underbrush, while orangutans descend from their leafy aeries to gorge on rambutans and wild figs.
But take another look at this primeval Eden -- this time from 200 miles above Earth -- and a very different picture emerges. In satellite photos, you'll see the thick jungle hemmed in by tidy rows of palm trees. These vast palm-oil plantations have become Borneo's fastest growing industry. They are also paring back the forest that once carpeted the island into small, isolated patches. The jungle, seemingly measureless to a visitor on the ground, may actually represent the last gasp of Borneo's legendary wilderness.
Compared to the illegal logging operations and gold mines that scar Borneo's landscape, the island's palm plantations seem benign, even beautiful, with green fronds swaying gently in the breeze and narrow roads winding among the trees.
Human beings have harvested palm fruit in groves like these for millennia. In Abydos, Egypt, archeologists discovered traces of palm oil in a tomb over 5,000 years old.
But Borneo's palm-oil industry is a relatively newer development, brought to the island by Dutch and British colonizers. Today, palm plantations cover about 8 million hectares in Indonesia. In 2007 alone, Malaysia exported more than 13 million metric tons of palm oil worth nearly $10 billion, according to government statistics.
The oil from that vast acreage ends up in a staggering array of products, from soap to chocolate bars to industrial lubricants. Palm oil has, significantly, also become a prime new source of biofuel. Malaysia has invested heavily already, opening dozens of plants to process the raw oil into fuel for export to China and Europe. Neste, a Finnish oil company, already produces a biofuel made mostly from palm oil that runs some of Helsinki's buses.
But many environmental groups argue that palm oil isn't the green panacea it's been billed as. Much of the expansion of palm plantations has come at the expense of Borneo's forests, critical incubators of the island's biodiversity. Particularly in Kalimantan, the Indonesian section of the island, farmers sometimes clear land for palm cultivation by burning the forest, sending up a haze that can drift across Asia.
And much of that burning happens in Borneo's peat swamps, one of the island's most important and fragile ecosystems. Densely packed with centuries of decaying organic material, these swamps store a huge payload of carbon, which, when burned, is released into the atmosphere. Lian Pin Koh, a scientist at Switzerland's Institute of Terrestrial Ecosystems who has studied palm oil's environmental impact extensively, says that the resulting enormous release of greenhouse gases could exacerbate global warming. "Indonesia's decision to convert peat-lands to oil palm is a monumental mistake for the country's long-term economic prosperity and sustainability," he says.
Malaysia has been more prescient about protecting its environment, banning agricultural conversion of protected forest. But Mr. Koh says that new plantations may still spring up in previously logged forests -- less impressive than virgin wilderness like Danum valley, but still vitally important habitat for wildlife like orangutans and elephants. "A growing number of scientific studies have shown these secondary forests to be highly valuable for biodiversity conservation," he says. "A large proportion of the remaining forest in Malaysia belongs to this category of unprotected secondary forest, which remains vulnerable to palm-oil development."
The danger to Borneo's biodiversity is hard to overstate. Between 1985 and 2005, roughly a third of the island's rainforest disappeared, felled by indiscriminate logging or cleared for palm plantations. One alarming 2001 study predicted that Kalimantan's lowland forest could be completely gone by 2010. Navjot Sodhi, a researcher at the National University of Singapore, has estimated that deforestation could result in a third of Asian forest species going extinct this century.
In Kota Kinabalu, Sabah's laid-back seaside capital, I meet Darrel Webber, a project manager with the World Wide Fund for Nature. Mr. Webber oversees one of Sabah's most ambitious conservation projects, a "corridor of life" along the Kinabatangan River in eastern Sabah designed to act as a buffer between a wildlife-rich protected forest and the palm plantations that crowd against it.
He explains that the industry is likely to keep expanding world-wide, since palm oil represents a major economic opportunity for poor countries. "We know for a fact that palm oil can alleviate poverty," he says. "Compared to other commodities, even coffee or cocoa, nothing else gets as much profit from the land. You just can't beat palm oil."
For nations weighing conservation of their natural environment against economic development, the math becomes hard to resist. I ask Mr. Weber if he thinks palm plantations will continue to encroach on Borneo's wilderness. "As long as people do not value forest as much as other land uses, the danger will continue," he says.
In the past, campaigning by environmentalists has slowed expansion into more controversial areas. In 2007, the Indonesian government scrapped a plan, funded by China, to build the world's largest palm-oil plantation along its mountainous border with Malaysia, in a biologically rich, largely inaccessible region known as the heart of Borneo. In a victory for conservationists, the two governments, along with Brunei, instead agreed to permanently protect more than 200,000 square kilometers of remaining rainforest.
Palm-oil companies, stung by hyperbolic characterizations of their industry as rapacious plunderers, have also responded to environmental concerns. In 2003, a consortium of oil companies and conservation groups set up the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil to codify and encourage environmentally sustainable practices for growers and producers. Some plantation operators in Malaysia have gone even further, setting up buffer zones for wildlife and organizing jungle patrols to stop poaching and encroachment on habitat. Last year, the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever, which is among the world's largest palm-oil consumers, announced that by 2015 it would only buy oil produced according to rspo standards.
Because compliance is voluntary, some groups, including Greenpeace, have charged that the RSPO is largely a "greenwash," the environmental equivalent of corporate damage control. Yet other conservation groups, including the WWF, have embraced the initiative, arguing that the only way to improve the industry is with the cooperation of companies themselves. "There's been a lot of criticism of the RSPO," the WWF's Mr. Webber acknowledges. "But there's no other vehicle for sustainable development."
In Mr. Webber's view, there's no reason why palm oil can't be grown sustainably while still enriching local economies. After all, Borneo's logging industry, once the bete noire of environmentalists, has made admirable strides toward sustainability. But the success of the RSPO depends on convincing thousands of small farmers to go along with the program. And in a larger sense, it may depend on getting everyone -- consumers of chocolate and biofuel in Asia and Europe, as well as impoverished farmers in Borneo -- to agree that the island's remaining forests are every bit as valuable as the crop referred to here as "green gold."
Mr. Ritter is a free-lance writer based in Hong Kong.