Blog for 2009-07-03

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Abby and Kristina enjoying the bus ride

Transportation, palm oil, and sustainability


Today we coaxed our sore legs up the stairs of a bus. We said our goodbyes both to Mt. Kinabalu and to Kinari Webb who has been traveling with us for the past two weeks, but we were also joined by our new guest lecturers: Swee Peck Quek, Charles Marshall, and Rhett Harrison.

Along the ear-popping mountain descent, we traveled out of the lower montaine and into the lowland rain forest. One commonality between each forest type became apparent: the landscape is a patchy mix of green all over Borneo. Part of the land remains a primary forest while other sections have been converted to secondary forest, agriculture, or freshly cleared land. The varied landscape is indicative of both modern and historical resource use in the Malaysian State of Sabah.

After a few hours, the bus entered Sabah's eastern lowlands. The signature patchy landscape became more rare because plant diversity was no longer apparent. There were no pineapple vendors nor were people practicing traditional shifting agriculture. Instead, the eastern lowlands is almost entirely comprised of palm oil plantations for as far as the eye can see. No story of biodiversity in Borneo would be complete without discussing this rapidly expanding and incredibly prevalent industry. While harvesting and exporting palm oil is very profitable, it hosts many of the problems associated with monocultures. The difference between palm oil monoculture in Malaysia and corn monoculture in the United States is that this particular story is set in one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world. Borneo is home to many endemic, rare, and endangered species, all of which are under greater extinction risk if land use is dominated by one crop.

Loading oil palm inflorescence for transportation

It is important to hear the other side of the story though, and we were fortunate to be invited to lunch and a tour of Wilmar's Sapi plantations. It was great to hear from industry workers about how certain companies are altering their practices to become less harmful to the environment. Approximately 1/3 of Sabah's production companies have joined the Round table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a voluntary group that aims to improve production methods while maintaining equivalent profits. RSPO companies can then charge a premium to consumers to cover costs of the greener production methods (currently this rate is 5%). In addition to their presentations, they also demonstrated their harvesting and transportation methods for us, as well as answered a litany of questions from our group of skeptical students. While it is a great start, there is still a lot of work to do for palm oil production to be a sustainable industry.

After touring the plantation, we loaded into 4 wheel drive vehicles and caravaned past plantation after plantation. Another hour later, a change in land use became apparent yet again. We were back in the lowland forest, but this time we passed truckloads of timber. We were getting close to Deramakot, a sustainable logging operation where we will spend the next two days. After visiting an oil palm plantation and about to enter a reduced impact logging concession, thoughts about sustainability filled our heads. How can the people of Sabah support themselves while protecting biodiversity?