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Sabah Conservation: The Battle for Borneo

After 100 years of Palm Oil production Borneo attempts to claim back the rainforest by creating a "corridor of life"

Borneo, Palm Oil, Sabah Conservation, From Elsewhere

100 years of palm oil

If Laos is the land of a million elephants then Malaysia must be the land of a million palm trees. Palm oil is one of the country's biggest export crops and the jungle has been stripped to make way for it.

The palm tree is associated with idyllic climates and island destinations so at first glance the country's lush green landscape doesn't seem so evil...maybe even natural. But this palm tree is not a Malaysian native.

In the early 1900s, British plantation owners brought the Elaeis Guineensis plant from West Africa to Malaysia, cultivating its fruit for oil. Within 100 years the country had gone from never having seen an African Oil Palm to being one of the world's foremost producers of palm oil.

Palm oil is used in most foods and cosmetics, from ready-mixed Milo to toothpaste. Malaysia produces 18 million tonnes of it a year on around 5 million hectares of land - much of it in Borneo.

Finding the balance between people and planet

Palm oil is Malaysia's biggest economic driver. The industry employees almost half a million workers (1) and fills the government's treasury. People need a livelihood and conservation works best where strategies replace the income of what is lost.

This is especially important for Malaysia where plantation crops have underscored the nation's extraordinary economic success and helped bring it into the developed world. The standard of living here is high, in a region where it often is not. Citizens readily have access to schooling, health care, sanitation and road infrastructure. However these benefits have come at the expense of the forest so a balance needs to be struck where the environment wins without the people losing.

Mass Agriculture is a by-product of civilisation. Palm Oil plantations are not the only cause of deforestation and wildlife loss in Borneo, however, the clearing of large tracts of land through slash and burn methods to sow a soil depleting crop has been phenomenally destructive.

Borneo is one of the earth's great forests, a diverse biosphere of plants and animals and home to most of the world's species of birds and insects. Replacing native habitat with foreign plant plantations upsets the natural order, losing unique species forever. Forest loss not only takes from us the orangutans, pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys and cute little tarsiers, it accounts for climate change that threatens us all.

Corridor of Life

The Kinabatangan River in Sabah is the last remaining forested alluvial floodplain in Asia. In 1999, the Malaysian government declared the Lower Kinabatangan "Sabah's gift to the earth". Conservation efforts were stepped up and, in 2005, 25,000 hectares were gazetted as a wildlife sanctuary. For around 1km either side of the river it offers Sabah's remaining wildlife protection from farmers, plantations and roadways. It isn't near enough.

The Sabah government, working in conjunction with KiTA, WWF and other local partners are attempting to build a "Corridor of Life" - a forest corridor that links fragmented bushland from the mangrove swamps near the Sulu Sea to the upland rainforests. But this relies on landowners, in a highly cultivatable floodplain area, giving up their land - something many are proving not to want to do (2).

While the government funds Sabah's Corridor of Life project it also continues to fund the Malaysian Palm Oil Council - the role of which is to promote the palm oil industry. While the Council does to some degree support Sabah's conservation efforts, it also clearly states that palm oil is here to stay.

Palm Oil plantations from the air and land


(1) Malaysia has been notably cited for some of those 'workers' being children and trafficked, unpaid, foreign workers @

(2) @


About the CORRIDOR OF LIFE on the WWF Factsheet

Amazing facts about PALM OIL: Malaysian Palm Oil Council

THE KINABATANGAN RIVER is a popular place for jungle tourism in Sabah region of Malaysia Borneo. There are many guesthouses and resorts offering accommodation at all price points and various 'eco' ratings. Most accommodations include river safaris which offers amazing opportunities at sunrise and sunset to see a whole range of Borneo's animals. Some also offer hiking trails further into the jungle. The closest city to Kinabatangan River is Sandakan, where you'll also find the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre and the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre as well as links to eco-tourism in the Sulu Sea



FLICKR 00 | Borneo



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