Ozy Aditya struggles with the steering wheel of his 4x4 pickup as he bounces between potholes. Following the Sungai Wahaua River, we are headed for the Wehea Nature Reserve in the Bornean province of East Kalimantan. Oil palm trees line both sides of the road. In the opposite direction, flatbed trucks rumble past hauling oversized logs the diameter of small cars. They are headed to mills where their cargoes of ironwood and Menggaris trees will be turned into building materials and fancy furniture.
Pulling off the gravel road we pause to inspect a staggered line of newly planted oil palms. The lack of scenery stretches in every direction. In his hand, Ozy cradles the rich crimson fruit of an African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). “This is what it’s all about, this one little nut,” he says, “from it comes the most popular vegetable oil on the planet, and a lot of controversy.”
Oil palm is the world’s most productive oil food crop. It can yield 10 times more oil per hectare than soy, which is the second most inexpensive oil. With a long shelf life and free of trans fats, the oil is squeezed from the fleshy mesocarp which surrounds the palm fruit’s central seed or kernel. (Palm kernel oil, also harvested commercially, is extracted separately from palm oil). More than 40 percent of the world's vegetable oil comes from oil palm trees.
Ozy studies the walnut-sized fruit. He knows it well having once worked at a processing plant near Samarinda. He now owns a guide service to lead tourists into the interior of East Kalimantan. Although oil palm cultivation seems like the polar opposite of ecotourism, he believes both industries may be necessary if his country's wavering economy is to recover. But he wonders if they are compatible.
Through the dense whine of cicadas, Ozy tells me, “this road belongs to the companies—we’re just using it to access the Wehea Forest.” I ask him if it is not the other way around. “Don’t these roads belong to the people and the logging and palm oil companies are using them to access (and cut down) the forest?” He pauses uncomfortably. The subject changes as we approach yet another security checkpoint on the road ahead. If these security stations are here to protect the trees, then it can be said that Indonesia spares no expense looking after the safety of its forests. But they are not being guarded strictly for the sake of future generations or for the enjoyment of sight-seers. Mostly, it is because these woods are money in the bank–- their value increases with each additional acre cut.
After gaining approval from a crew of custodians manning the checkpoint, we continue toward the heart of the forest. A few miles on and our truck is stuck, doors deep, in a pool of mud. Climbing out the window, I slide into the mire and my feet touch bottom. It is not quite waist deep. The look on Ozy’s face indicates we might be here for a while.
What on the outside can seem like a simple matter of over-exploitation often obscures a machination of complex factors. Demand for palm oil is expected to more than double by 2030. For mindful consumers weary of contributing to environmental degradation, it is increasingly difficult to avoid. One estimate suggests that more than 50 percent of all supermarket products contain it in one form or another. It is found in everything from ice cream to potato chips, and from cosmetics to biofuel. Certified “sustainable” palm oil is available, but even “100 percent responsibly sourced palm oil” should be considered suspect as far as its impact on the environment is concerned. Problems with labeling and tracking make the confirmation of sustainable oil difficult to verify.
Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, exports billions of dollars worth of palm oil each year. The country has over 6 million hectares (15 million acres) of plantation land. But not all of its citizens are laughing their way to the bank. One needs to simply look at how most people live in order to realize that, although the industry has brought many jobs to the region, not everyone is feeling the love.
The palm oil business has an enormous impact on the country’s natural landscapes. Since 1990 they have lost some 31 million hectares (76 million acres) of forest, or an area nearly the size of Germany. Bimbiak Sirjipati from the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor claimed, “Palm oil is at the center of understanding forest degradation and deforestation in Indonesia,” and added, “especially in Kalimantan which is at the front line.”
Within a couple of hours, and with the help of a passerby with a long braided cable, we drag our truck from its wallow and continue toward the nature reserve’s boundary. A primeval stand of old growth is our reward. Most of the creatures that live here remain hidden, but signs warn us to be on the lookout for bearded pigs, water monitors, and cobras. Arriving at a rustic lodge beside the swollen Wehea River, we are surrounded by towering trees. This is the home of the “forest guardians” who work for Profauna, an organization charged to oversee the reserve’s diverse landscape and its threatened inhabitants. On a trek later in the day I cringe with each swing of his machete as Erik Yanuar Hady, a ranger-in-training, carves a narrow passage through the vegetation. On our return, only a day later, I am relieved to see there is no sign of our passing. It is as if the forest, oblivious to our man-made tools, has already recovered from the insult of the machete’s steel blade. My hope is that if healing can come that quickly on such a small scale, perhaps that recovery can be mirrored by the forest as a whole.