Consumption, Conservation, and Commitment: Lessons from Borneo
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” wrote Samuel Longhorn Clemens in Innocents Abroad. “Charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” With Mark Twain’s admonition in mind, this summer John Bliss (OSU Professor Emeritus and Greenbelt board member) led a class of OSU students to explore conservation on the island of Borneo, one of the world’s great hotspots of biodiversity. Their objectives were to identify major conservation challenges, learn from conservation leaders, and make connections between the Borneo situation and their own in the Willamette Valley.
It wasn’t difficult to identify the biggest challenge, and our personal connection to it. I asked the students, “When was the last time you ate a cracker? Put on lipstick? Or washed with Dr. Bronner’s All-One Hemp Peppermint Organic Pure-Castile Soap? What could these products possibly have to do with conservation?”
Each of these consumer products, and about half of all packaged products sold in the supermarket, contain palm oil or its derivatives. The label may list palm oil, vegetable oil, palmate, palmitate, sodium lauryl sulfate, or any one of several other names.
Palm oil comes from plantations in the tropics. In the past few decades, an area the size of Cambodia (18 million hectares) has been planted to oil palm worldwide. Sixty percent of this area has been directly converted from primary forest, much of it on Borneo.
In the Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo, conversion of natural forestland to plantations, while extensive, has been largely halted. A system of forest reserves has been established to retain forestland for timber production, ecosystem services, and wildlife habitat.
Here, the class is gathered on the magnificent canopy walk conceived and developed by Dr. Robert Ong, at left, our guide at the Rainforest Discovery Center in Sandakan. Through the activities of the Center, thousands of visitors every year are exposed to the wonders of the rainforest.
Just minutes from the Rainforest Discovery Center, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center promotes sun bear conservation through rehabilitation, education, and research. As oil palm plantations expanded, native habitat shrunk, displacing sun bears, orangutans, pygmy elephants, and many other animals. Wong Siew, the Center’s founder, has devoted his life to sun bear conservation.
The biodiversity of Borneo is staggering. During our brief visit, we encountered several species of primates. Here is a family of proboscis monkeys in a private sanctuary just outside the city of Sandakan.
The silverback monkey is born a beautiful bright pumpkin color, then darkens with age.
The class spent several days at Danau Girang Field Center, in the Lower Kinabatagan River Wildlife Sanctuary. In places the Sanctuary is little more than a narrow strip between the Kinabatangan River and the oil palm plantations that surround it. The Center’s existence is due to the lifelong commitment of one individual, Dr. Benoit Goosens of Cardiff University in Wales.
There, we job-shadowed graduate students from all around the world, all of whom conduct field research in support of conservation. Led by a PhD student from Spain, we trapped monitor lizards, the second-largest lizard on Earth. We collected basic information on this little-studied reptile, including diet, growth, behavior, and genetics to understand what is essential to conserving the species.
This civet, a seeming cross between cat and weasel, was trapped and anesthetized so that a computer chip could be implanted under its skin in order to learn about its range and behavior. PhD students conducting conservation science at Danau Girang work and live under challenging conditions for several years, driven by their passion for conserving biodiversity.
At the CREATE Center just outside of the Sabah state capital, Kota Kinabalu, we met with leaders of several community organizations committed to improving the lives of rural communities through community development and environmental protection. With assistance from the Portland-based NGO, Green Empowerment, mini-hydro electric generators are built and installed in remote villages to power schools and hospitals. Designing these systems with the community results in a detailed understanding of the local watershed and the need to conserve it.
Our class returned to the U.S. having learned at least two important lessons. First, ours is a small planet on which all forms of life are more deeply intertwined than we may realize. The impacts of our consumptive lifestyle are felt even in the most remote regions on the other side of the globe. Second, in both Borneo and the Willamette Valley, conservation requires the passion and commitment of individuals, the active engagement of communities, and the awareness and support of citizens around the globe.
To learn more about the issues and organizations mentioned, visit these websites:
Blog post and all photographs (c) John Bliss, OSU Emeritus Professor and Greenbelt Land Trust board member