Thursday, 24 January 2019

Thoughts on "Climate Justice" by Mary Robinson

"I felt bad because I knew that the people in developed countries are our friends. We are the same people; we have the same blood. But these people were enjoying their life while we were suffering. I wanted to know why they were doing this to us. I wanted to know whether the people in developed countries could reduce their emissions so we could have our normal seasons back." - Constance Okollet

Image result for climate justice mary robinson

I read these lines with my heart sinking into my intestines, as would anyone with a soul. This, and several accounts from underprivileged people from around the world on the front lines of climate breakdown were platformed in this wonderfully optimistic yellow book by the former President of Ireland. There was Anote Tong, who, post-Copenhagen, was forced to tell his people in Kiribati that their island was essentially doomed. Sharon Hanshaw, who became an accidental activist voicing the rights of the Katrina-devastated in Biloxi, near New Orleans. Vu Thi Hien, who left academia to help preserve Vietnam's biodiversity and indigenous communities through reforestation. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, who, along with her M'bororo community, 3D-mapped the degradation of their native land to show the Chadian government and the world. These are the stories that need to be heard.

Devouring this 150-or-so-page book in an afternoon, outside in wintry London it quickly became dark in a way that the book did not. I wondered when Mary Robinson would dramatically unveil the morbid struggle of Latin America's environmental activists. As the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and author of such a compellingly titled book, surely she wouldn't overlook the fact that nearly 60% of the murders of land and environmental defenders in 2017 took place in Latin America?

She did. As bad as the stories of the community leaders profiled in the book were, she did not mention the endless denial of justice for the protectors of Latin America's indigenous rights and natural wild, or even murder at all. The only Latina mentioned, of course, was Christiana Figueres. A woman I used to admire so much, but now want to shake by the shoulders and scream 'WAKE UP!! Mission 2020 is not happening!'

Mary Robinson seems trapped in this admirable but frustrating optimism that the world order will 'wake up' on hearing the stories of the world's poorest and most vulnerable to climate degradation. Maybe it's fair enough, for someone who felt the wind change at the Paris Agreement. Like many of her generation, she earnestly believes that continuing on the business-friendly path of renewable energy, economic development, and non-binding corporate and government 'commitments' to net-zero emissions, we will make it. That is why she still has hope in Powerpoint conferences and briefcase groups such as her 'B Team' alongside Richard Branson, a man whose interests lie in maintaining his profits, and not structural, systemic overhaul. This is why CO2 emissions rose sharply in 2018, and will continue to do so.

True, we need to listen to the marginalised. But we can't stick our heads in the sand and pretend we can continue to develop without era-defining disruption to civilization as we know it. We need degrowth, right now - a word she does not mention at all. There is not enough time for optimism, and the truly downtrodden know this.

For these reasons, the book seems mistitled. Should we really hold out for, as the front cover suggests, "hope, resilience, and the fight for a sustainable future"? I hope she comes round to reality sooner rather than later, with a sequel: Climate Injustice.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Who are the guardians of China's last frozen river?

Original by ExploreToConserve here. Click to see the incredible photo series that this written account accompanies.

In the 30 degree summer of New Zealand, each breath is full of sunshine and sandy beaches. Groups of young people ahead wear shorts and flip flops, not missing the opportunity to expose their creamy skin to each ray of sunshine.

The heavy heat on our bodies makes it hard for us to imagine that at the same time, on the other side of endless mountains and seas, stand peaks capped by year-round snow that have been on top of the Tibetan plateau for hundreds of thousands of years, whose melting snow is carried into the giant river of life.

Let us focus in on the Tibetan plateau's eastern part. At an altitude of 5369 metres, Bayan Kala mountain range's highest peak has a special name: Nian Bao Yu Ze.

The name of the mountain god is 'Nian Bao Yu Ze', and the place where this god lives is god's mountain.
At the start of August 2018, myself, Obermann, and several local Tibetan friends undertook the main peak's frozen river annual monitoring mission, run by the Nian Bao Yu Ze Ecological Protection Association. This is a civil society group started up by local monks and herdsmen, which although grassroots, has been protecting Nian Bao Yu Ze for the past 11 years through local ecology and traditional culture. It has invested a lot of energy and seen many achievements.

Every August since 2004, salt-of-the-earth native herdsman Lewan from the valley of Nian Bao Yu Ze chooses two days of good weather. He takes a tent, camera and tripod, and single-handedly hikes to the edge of the peak's frozen river. After noting the GPS coordinates, he writes the year in acrylic paint, and takes a photo from a fixed point to document the river.

Two years ago, the nearly 50 year-old Lewan taught this task to another herder, Bade, who lives on the other side of the ice river. In 2018, with equipment sponsorship from The North Face, we and core members of the association who for a long time had not reached the river's 5000 metre-altitude rode horses together entering from Bade's valley. Then leaving from Lewan's village, we attempted a crossing almost no one had ever tried.

Just like a real adventure, every experience was brand new, which requires full mind-and-body immersion. Since it is not easy to write about the experience, how can it be conveyed to anyone who did not stand atop that mountain? Photos and videos do it much better justice.

Although it was a happy adventure, hearing about the frozen river's historical demise was distressing. Around ten years ago, this place was perhaps unrecognizable. Outdoor explorers had very few grievances; the more pressing question is...

The head of the association Ake Kamakura is a monk proficient in classical Buddhism. Standing in front of the stone used as the fixed point from which to take photos, he says that when he was a small he herded cattle at the foot of the mountain. In the past few decades he has seen with his own eyes the frozen river disappearing at an incredible speed.

"Tibetans believe that water comes from the top of the snow mountain, but in maybe 50 years time, if there is no frozen river, our water source will no longer be guaranteed."

Not just you, this would also be a problem for the thousands of people living downstream of Sanjiangyuan! I think silently.

In the past 50 years, the average annual temperature of Nian Bao Yu Ze's county, Juizhi, has increased by almost 2 degrees Celsius. What about this makes it so bad?

The Paris Agreement three years ago called for all countries to limit the global temperature increase between the years 1850 to 2100 to less than 2 degrees Celsius, the threshold beyond which the world will face irreversible changes. Other plant and animal species may still thrive, but humanity's complex and fragile social structure will be very hard to maintain under even the slightest environmental changes.

In 2009, an article in an authoritative journal summarized the crisis brought by climate change facing the Tibetan Plateau as seen by scientists - the temperature increase on the plateau is three times that of the planet. The frozen river's decline is evident. Will the lives of the herdspeople and villagers who live here be able to withstand the effects of such an upheaval? There are many plants and animals that are not found anywhere else on the planet. While the temperature rises, the mountain's height stays limited; so where will they all go?

We discovered the corpses of at least 20 little birds at the top of the frozen lake. Even locals who regularly climbed here had never observed this before. Was it related to climate change? It's not clear, but the summer of 2018 was abnormally hot.
Our understanding of the plateau's flora and fauna is so limited, so the traditional culture in which local Tibetans live in harmony with nature is very much worth maintaining and sharing. But life there is facing huge uncertainties of the future.

How can we make outsiders aware of the severity of this generation's environmental problems, and have the confidence to make changes?

This is a question I have not yet found an answer to. However, what the association's founder, Tashi Sange, told me gave me hope:

"This planet is my mother. If my mother is sick, I worry she might die tomorrow. So does she still need looking after today? Of course she needs looking after. Our planet is the same. If the planet is exploding tomorrow, we still have to care for it today."

The members of Nian Bao Yu Ze Ecological Protection Association believe that nature is a guesthouse, and humans are just her temporary guests. We have the right to use her, but not to ruin her. All beings should enjoy the guesthouse's clean air, food and water, but if our appetite is too large, we will be stealing resources from other beings.

Leaving Nian Bao Yu Ze, the other association members and I are walking along a dirt path through the middle of the grasslands, when Tashi suddenly stops dead in front of me, both feet apart. I go to stand next to him, curious, and ask "what are you doing?"

"There's an insect on the ground, I'm protecting it," he says with a laugh.

They have already started protecting. Have you?

Having finished reading this article, you can:

1. Make fewer online purchases and deliveries, use fewer plastic bags and other single-use items
2. Use public transport more, or cycle, run or walk
3. Support truly environmentally-friendly businesses (not those just paying lip-service)
4. There is lots more you can do, but the easiest is to scan the QR code below or click 'Read the original article' and share it, like our ME public welfare innovation project application, to help Nian Bao Yu Ze Ecological Protection Association receive 500,000 yuan in charity funding. We hope to present a new balance of coexistence between humans and nature, so that everyone can be a guardian of nature.

Of course, this is a monumental topic of discussion. Will we be able to protect Nian Bao Yu Ze or even China's last frozen river? We hope so, and believe there is still time... because there is you, Tashi!

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Latin America, Where Being An Environmental Activist Is A Death Sentence

Original aquí.

Mexico, Colombia and Brazil are the most dangerous countries in the region for defenders of environmental, land, and indigenous rights, according to several NGOs

In March 2016, the Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres was assassinated, yet justice is still on the trail of the perpetrators.

Cáceres is among the almost 197 environmental advocates who were killed in 2017, according to the NGO Global Witness, the majority of them in Latin America.

The corruption and vast natural resources that the region hosts make it the perfect setting for megaprojects to acquire licences relatively easily.

The head of the Global Witness campaign, Billy Kye, told DW Germany that ‘there are high levels of indigenous populations who have historically been marginalised, so companies enter their lands and plunder their resources.’

Although their protests are acknowledged more each time by the media and are sometimes heard by local authorities, paradoxically this makes them more at risk of assassination.

Front Line Defenders confirms that it is mostly activists who are murdered. The organization registered 312 defenders killed, 212 of them in Latin America. Most alarming is that 156 of these homicides were in Colombia and Brazil.

The report also indicates that 80% of assassinations of human rights advocates occur in Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines.

Of the total number of activists killed, according to this investigation, 67% were defenders of land, environmental and indigenous rights.

In almost all cases these advocates fought against the activities of extractive industries or megaprojects that damaged vast ecosystems or the homes of ancient peoples.

Astrid Puentes Riaño, co-executive director of the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA), confirmed that ‘Latin America is the most unequal region on the planet, which means that there are populations in situations of extreme economic, political, and social vulnerability,’ according to DW Germany.

She added that ‘we live in a region with one of the highest rates of impunity and weakest rule of law, where the implementation of norms is also sidelined.’

The Amazonian rainforest has become a particular area of dispute in Brazil. The government, who is at the root of the country’s current economic and political crisis, has searched ‘desperately for quick solutions to access the Amazon, the development and extension of agricultural land, and the ruthless exploitation of natural resources,’ according to Jim Loughran of Front Line Defenders.

Colombia, despite its peace agreements, ‘thousands of Colombians with legal entitlements to their land have been displaced. As they work to reclaim their territory, they become targets for the profiteers who could illegally seize their land, as well as for the new generation of paramilitary succeeding the FARC who want to take control. The defenders of land rights find themselves in critical danger,’ says Loughran.

For Global Witness, the country’s current situation is the result of palm oil agroindustry. This activity, the NGO says, has surpassed mining as the business with most links to activist killings.

Meanwhile, Mexico continues to be embroiled in an escalation of human rights advocates assassinations that has taken it to fourth place of countries with the highest number of such murders, according to Global Witness.

‘The federal and state governments do not sufficiently support the work of defenders and sometimes even ally with the opposition to their work,’ Puentes Riaño argued, denouncing the impunity that she says persists in the country.

The visibility of defenders is also a double-edge sword, exposing them to identification and possible assassination. This occurred with Isidro Baldenegro López, an activist against illegal logging in the ancient forests of Sierra Madre, or Berta Cáceres in Honduras, both who were massacred shortly after each receiving a Goldman Environmental Prize.

According to Front Line Defenders, only 12% of these cases end with the arrest of suspects. The spokeswoman for AIDA says that there are measures that need to be taken urgently. These include ‘adequate investigations and identification of those responsible for attacks and assassinations of activists, as well as authors and intellectuals, and justice in all these cases.’

Global Witness has called for states to rally to the defence of environmental advocates, and to fight ‘root causes’ which are lack of prior consultation of indigenous peoples and other communities who would be affected by industrial projects.

Monday, 24 December 2018

Beijing Isn't Actually That Polluted (...?)

The first time I went for a run in China, I lasted only fifteen minutes before collapsing on the ground, spluttering grey phlegm like a deranged concrete mixer.

This was only a few weeks into my arrival, not a massive amount of time since I had been regularly doing 10ks around the quaint Caversham countryside. But the air is different in Chengdu.

A southwestern second-tier city, Chengdu was the first place I properly lived in in China. A recent analysis has shown that this year, Chengdu's air pollution surpassed that of the capital, Beijing. When you think of Beijing, you picture Tiananmen Square enrobed in a thick grey smog, with mask-wearing passers-by barely visible and Mao's face ominously peeping through the soot. It's the world's poster child for ultimate air-quality mismanagement; the home of the 'airpocalypse'.

Such a classic shot.

Now, Chengdu is even worse.

But what happened? Moving to 'Greyjing' nine months later, I was surprised to find that the summer days were unexpectedly bright and blue. The most fallaciously pretty afternoon was during the National Day celebrations of October 2015 - the previous day had pissed it down, but now it was as if APEC had come round again.

'APEC Blue' was the name given to the highly unusual (and suspiciously) blue skies during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Beijing the previous year (when I was still choking on PM2.5 in Chengdu). Then it became a term used to describe anything beautiful but fleeting - but conversely, it seemed such 'blue heavens' became more and more frequent during my two years in the big BJ.

That very same year, the documentary 'Under the Dome' by the spectacular Chai Jing went viral. The monumental wake-up call it created was like an oriental Silent Spring, and of course, within a week the film was censored - but not before hitting 300 million views. It outlined Jing's daughter's in utero tumour caused by shitty air and laid into China's biggest polluters. At the end, she encouraged viewers to say 'No, I'm not satisfied, I don't want to wait. I want to stand up and do a little something.' No wonder the CCP got scared.

And people did a little something. No 1989-style revolution, obviously, but some type of online grumbling that got noticed. Beijing had for years already been moving the factories out of the city centre, riling up the older generation who'd lost their jobs as a result. This had, in a huge way, transferred the grey problem to surrounding provinces like Hebei (which Chinese people now stereotype as polluted), but Beijing's turf still had a winter-smog elephant to deal with.

Every November, around the 15th, Beijing flips on the central heating. This kept people in the little hutong courtyard houses like mine cosy during the tundra-like climes (and in my conspiracy-paranoid mind, shut up - in more senses than one). But there is a big cost to this. The energy it takes to heat a city of 22 million via a system of underground pipes means an unbelievable amount of coal being burned, and consequently a fat shroud of smog over the capital. Sometimes the Gobi Desert also likes to troll the capital, dumping yellow clouds of sand whenever it gets a bit windy (which, in winter, is sometimes).

Last year in 2017 they tried to ban coal for heating and replace it with natural gas, which it turned out they didn't have enough of, leaving a ton of people in Hebei out in the cold. Naturally, Hebei-ers were frosty about this and the 'government' had to revert to the black stuff. But like Chai Jing, many more city-dwellers are complaining about the long-term effects pollution has on general health and well-being - especially that of their children. These people, mostly the rising middle-class, live in Beijing and Shanghai and can afford to consider the luxuries of clean air, occasionally disappearing to Taiwan, Japan or New Zealand to detox their lungs. To placate these high-PPP people, whose mass dissatisfaction could threaten the very stability of the regime, the biggest cities are mobilising in a big way to clean up the skies.

And it seems to be working, if you take the word of China's Ministry of Environmental Protection, which for your own sanity you shouldn't. The US embassy, which unofficially (but more reliably) monitors the city's air, had readings which suggested PM2.5 concentrations in winter 2017 were more than 50% lower than in 2016 - in agreement with the official stats.

It's like Beijing has reached post-development, where inhabitants have the economic clout to call out the damage from the industrialisation that made them rich. Meanwhile, in second- and third-tier cities like Chengdu, it's still development at all costs. It may take several years before they get to the comfortable-enough point to 'do a little something'.

Of course, Beijing still has its bad days, and compared with European cities it's a gas chamber. But it's nothing that can't be dealt with temporarily by a magic weather machine or cloud-dispersing rockets to maintain a sunny façade, as is what probably happened for my nostalgic National Day parade in 2015. Back then, most days people used to say that smoking was a way of filtering out the pollution. When I went back just last year, there were fewer masks, and fewer smokers. Maybe, just maybe, there's less to filter.

EDIT: Literally a few hours after I wrote this, I looked on a WeChat group of the Beijing Energy Network that I'm part of. Someone had posted this update that BJ's pollution in the first two months of winter 2018 was actually WORSE than in 2017. So it probably isn't a trend and may well invalidate all of the above... hence the ellipsis and question mark in the title. And this awkward photo as recompense.

The face of a smog mask expert.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Stolen Stalactites

This maybe doesn’t seem like an environment or sustainability issue. But bear with me.

In the depth of Chom Ong, a 16.4km-long cave in the northeast of Laos whose name means ‘chasing the wasp’, Mr Shengshoulixai starts slapping the palms of his hands against a million-year-old overhanging white limestone curtain. He beats a rhythm on the differently-tuned stalactites, whose bass reverberates through the darkness.

Mr Shengshoulixai knows and loves the cave like his own home. He is keen to show me around even though I have just shown up unannounced and already weary from the 18km hike to get there. It is so remote, very few tourists make it – unless they are shuttled there in a four-by-four by special spelunking tour agencies. The nearest town, Oudomxay, is an industrial shithole.

The cave was ‘discovered’ only in 2006, and opened to the public in 2010. Actually, it was discovered by local farmers many generations ago, but for some reason these things are only truly considered ‘discovered’ when white scientists show up to measure them and draw pictures. As we clamber over the slippery stalagmites, Mr Shengshoulixai points out the demarcations where the local tourism office is planning to set up a trail. ‘Good thing you came here before 2020,’ he tells me, ‘by then this place will be full of tourists!’

He is hopeful about this. The adjoining Khmu village where he lives is very basic, with bucket showers and no electricity. Daily dinner is sticky rice and the local staple, bamboo shoot, with some zesty chilli (frog is also a specialty). Obviously, the more visitors, the more income he will make for his family. He’s looking for connections and investors in his plans for an eco-resort in the vicinity, but he only wants to partner with Westerners, despite a strong Chinese presence and interest in the area’s development.

He says that Chinese people do come here, but that they are not interested in exploring the cave like the Europeans are. They want to buy his land and build hotels. Sometimes they even try to break into the cave without paying him for his guidance services, which isn’t permitted. He shakes his head when he tells me about the stalactite thefts.

A few years back, some individuals broke into the cave and hacked off pieces of stalactite, perhaps with some kind of saw or club. The evidence of this is clearly visible, where the normally rounded ends of the ‘tites have sharp cornered edges where they have been broken clean off. A formation of several thousands, maybe millions of years old, severed in an instant.

Mr S. knows it was the Chinese. He is aware that there is some kind of stalactite trade in China, which I’m initially dubious about. But then I recall the many stalactites I have seen in souvenir markets in the southeast of China being sold as mantelpiece ornaments. Why the hell would anyone steal bits of cave? I hadn’t realised that was even a THING.

Market in Guilin, south China

Much less work has been done on the ethics of trade of geological heritage compared to biodiversity. China is notorious for breaching international trade rules on ivory and other endangered and non-endangered species, but there’s so little information on the scale or causes of mineral trafficking, and effects this pillage has on communities like Mr S’s.

While perhaps this doesn’t at first glance seem to have a tangible impact on the natural environment (it is unknown what ecosystem purposes stalactites might serve, if any), as a ‘fuck-you’ to the beauty of the planet and its diverse habitats, as well as an affront to the people that try to protect them, these activities should be up there with illicit trade and theft of biological organisms.

Mr S has had to put a giant padlock on the gate of the cave mouth, to stop anything like this happening again. If it were to continue, it could ruin not only the cave and its formations that visitors come from all over the world to marvel at, but also his livelihood. He hopes that further development, under the watchful eye of the authorities and in partnership with environmentally-aware investors, will bring enough attention to the threat Chom Ong is under and grant him more capacity for protecting it. For now, only he holds the key.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Borneo - R(eally) S(low) P(rogress) O(verall)

When I was little, I borrowed a dark green book from the library. On the front cover, a vibrant, fiery orangutan peered out at me from under the title, BORNEO, written in big white letters. It was a collection of illustrations depicting the flora and fauna of the 743,330 square-kilometre wild expanse of the Malay Archipelago.

Over the years, in my mind’s eye the idea of Borneo had not changed much from what I had seen in that book. Since the age of about five, Borneo remained a myriad of vivid colours scattered over an endless emerald expanse. Nothing around me in my insular, too-comfortable upbringing would have suggested otherwise.

It wasn’t until my late teens and early twenties that I began to hear murmurs about rainforest destruction and the disappearance of the world’s ‘jungle’ along with its multitude of curious beasts, including my childhood book-cover hero. The words ‘palm oil’ – something I had never previously heard of, despite consuming it daily – began to take an ominous tone. Even then, the issue seemed distant and exactly that – just another issue.

In 2018 I ended up almost by accident in this strange place I only knew about from that book all those years ago. With much trepidation I braced myself for a reality check, having already witnessed much of what so-called ‘development’ had done to the Asia region. However, nothing could prepare me for exactly what I was about to see.

Venturing only into the Malaysian provinces of Sabah and Sarawak, my observations of what is occurring across the island were admittedly somewhat restricted. I didn’t make it to Indonesian Kalimantan, to the south, nor to miniscule Brunei, in the centre-north. I followed a well-travelled path between sizeable cities; and the wild, forested areas that I had naively expected to envelop me were part of institutionalised conservation sites.

Many of these sites have been aided by booming tourism, which funnels money into the local and national economy. The homestays at Kinabatangan river are family businesses that rely on the preservation of the diminishing forest and its proboscis monkey inhabitants, if only to keep a steady trickle of backpackers coming through. The orangutan and sun bear sanctuaries at Sepilok do fantastic work rehabilitating animals affected by land-using industries and maintaining a safe space for them to simply exist. But it all feels a bit false – go anywhere else and you’d be hard pressed to see these creatures doing their thing outside of tourism-oriented captivity.

Chilling out in his safety net, the sanctuary.
Before I arrived, an ad from the UK supermarket chain Iceland had just gone viral as a result of its censorship from television by Clearcast, which approves advertisements for broadcasters. The story of ‘Rang-tan’ speaks for itself – the decimation of Bornean and Sumatran rainforests is fuelling the Pongo’s impending extinction. And it is our consumerist greed at fault.

Put precisely, it’s our greed for palm oil. This is the crux of it. And driving across the country, the effect of this is patent. Acre upon acre of uniform shrubbery, plant tombstones standing where magnificent green chaos once was. Bulldozers churning up the earth right up to the roadside. Plantation company after plantation company.

According to this much more in-depth article by NatGeo, since 1973, nearly 16,000 square miles of rainforest on Borneo have been logged, burned, and bulldozed to make way for oil palm. It accounts for a fifth of the total deforestation on the island since 1973—and for 47 percent since 2000.

Seeing something like this in its hard reality of course makes you reconsider your consumerist habits. Being plant-based, my consumption of palm oil is perhaps higher than average (and it is for this reason that I cannot legitimately call myself vegan). Even though my carbon footprint is much lower than that of a carnist, being confronted by barefaced habitat destruction resulting from my own consumer indifference was a wake-up call to quit the oil palm.

It’s not as simple as all that though (at least I like to tell myself). As one of the volunteers for Orang Utan Appeal UK remarked, the Iceland ad may actually have a detrimental effect if it leads to an overall boycott of palm oil. This, to most people, would seem the logical course of action. But palm oil is the most efficient oil in terms of yield per land use. If we all switched to another source of oil, for example rapeseed or coconut, the land we would need to clear to fill demand would be far vaster. And that land might be home to many other species.

Ironically, she also said, a lot of the conservation efforts in Sabah are in fact funded by the economic growth driven by palm oil exports. Take that away, and there’s no government money going into the national parks and reserves. But if there were no danger in the first place, what’d be the need for preservation efforts?

Additionally, a majority of the palm oil produced is used by industry (fuel, transport), not directly by consumers. Naturally, as with most emissions-heavy resources, the onus is on us to do something about our rampant hunger for the stuff. Perhaps the greatest good can be done by turning it around and putting pressure on the suppliers; corporations who have a grip on the consumer choices of millions around the world, and the means to satiate them.

This pressure has been formalised under the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, who it’s worth mentioning here. Though they are under much scrutiny over the stringency of their standards and close relationship with companies that caused many of the problems, they do send the message that people want edible oil that doesn’t come with a hefty death toll. You can check which brands are RSPO-certified on their website before you buy that next loaf of bread.

Research done by National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan and UC Berkeley has also shown that besides land clearance, the proliferation of palm oil production has secondary effects, namely species overpopulation. Their study in peninsular Malaysia demonstrated that this explosion in wild boar numbers has led to too many tree saplings being prematurely broken off, not allowing new trees the chance to reach maturity and restore lost forest. There may be many more similar unknown effects of palm oil production that we are yet to see.

Who is to be held accountable? Do the governments of capitalist-consumerist countries need to put their foot down and insist on sustainable-only palm oil? Or is it the companies and retailers who use it in their products who must sign up to the RSPO scheme? Or finally, is it the Malaysian and Indonesian governments who should jeopardize their socio-economic development by restricting the activities of plantation companies to satisfy the demands of a vocal minority of environmentalists?

I don’t claim to have the answer. But already it seems the West’s disdain for the razing of rainforests for the red kernel has reached the ears of the average local Malay Bornean. A few noted the trade-off: bad for the land, but good for the economy. One guy we hitchhiked with proudly told us that the plantation he worked for was RSPO-certified – and he had a nice big family car.

Perhaps the most magical encounter of the whole trip was unexpectedly stumbling across a pair of massive, nonchalant orangutans when visiting Gomantong cave, where swiftlet nests are harvested, just a few kilometres away from Kinabatangan. Bypassing no entry signs and climbing to the cave’s pinnacle, there was a small community of harvesters living in rusty corrugated shacks right beside these beautiful beings, all respecting each other’s space. Safely just out of arm’s reach (but close enough to pee on us), the orangutans had found true sanctuary in this area that was closed off to tourists. How telling that is.

Unexpected resident