Palm Oil Plantations of Borneo

Big business versus the rain forest, who do you think will win?

Borneo Palm Oil Plantation

When we started planning our recent trip to Malaysian Borneo, I found myself thinking about the threatened rain forests of Earth. I’ve been taught since as early as I can remember about slash and burn, strip mining, uncontrollable erosion and the rape of Mother Nature. I was expecting to see all of this as we drove across the region of Sabah from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan.

The reality, as I perceived it, fell short of the nightmare visions I’ve been fed. We saw no rampant clearing, mud-washed rivers, or smoldering mountains of wanton destruction. But make no mistake; there has been widespread clearing in some vast areas. We drove through some regions that were palm oil tree plantations as far as the eye could see. We weren’t surprised to learn that Malaysia leads the world in palm oil production and that most of the countries production comes out of Borneo.  The bulk of the industrial process we encountered was in the area outside of Sandakan.

Disclaimer: Some of our articles may contain affiliate links; when you click on these links you'll have the option to purchase or register for a service at no extra cost to you, but doing so helps us run this blog. That's awesome!
Borneo Palm Oil Plantation

Palm trees as far as the eye can see. Where is the rain forest?

In some grotesque way, the palm plantations are picturesque. The land has been terraced and molded to accommodate the greatest palm tree growth per square foot; the land is covered in lush, green foliage. We were surprised to discover a struggling habitat in among the palms. Birds, monkeys, and reptiles were sometimes spotted and the canopy was a pleasant green coverage. We even surprised a small troop of the endangered, proboscis monkeys along one stretch of road where the palm plantations and rain forest shared the land. Most people didn’t believe us when we told them about the proboscis monkeys so maybe that was a fluke.

Borneo Palm Oil Plantation

Palm nuts ready for collection.

The palm oil companies would have you believe this beautiful, verdant forest is coexisting with the rain forest and is an equal contributor to the benefit of humankind and the planet in general. Scientific studies (mostly funded by the growers and big businesses) have shown that palm oil trees convert carbon dioxide to oxygen at a much higher rate than natural jungle. The growers would tell you they have perfected their technique to insure the continued health of the land and wildlife. However, much of this is seemingly eyewash and the government has taken some belated steps in protecting the rain forest and minimizing the clearing of any new lands for plantation purposes. Supposedly the plantations are sustainable and the land being used was previously underused scrub, or already cleared for other agricultural uses. And palm oil is incredibly much healthier for us than those nasty trans-fats we’ve been consuming. Well, who are you going to believe, the plantation owners with a vested interest in their success?

Borneo Palm Oil Plantation

Water buffalo are used by palm nut collectors to take their haul to the collection points.

Because there is another side to the story. There is a very strong anti-palm oil campaign that is fighting the battle against the evils of palm oil. According to them, palm oil is single-handedly destroying the planet. The rain forest is being cleared to make more land available for this growing super-commodity and in the wake of this clear cutting we are losing a very significant portion of our carbon sink. What’s more, old growth jungle that harbors countless species known and unknown, common and endangered, is being wantonly destroyed. Organizations are fighting back and lobbying the government to establish sanctuaries to protect the rain forest and the flora and fauna to be found there. Mount Kinabolu National Park and Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre are success stories that are helping the jungle and its animals and educating the public at the same time.

Borneo Palm Oil Plantation

We came upon this collection point where there were heaps and heaps of palm nuts.

As with most arguments of this nature, there are some truths being told on both sides. Of course, palm trees do convert carbon dioxide to oxygen at an astonishing rate. However, they will not do so for hundreds of years non-stop. To maximize yield, the palm trees are destroyed, and replanted every twenty five years. The carbon that was converted is released back into the planetary system and the land is cleared again with little or no regard to the wildlife that was able to find a niche living in among the trees. There are some landowners, however, that recognize the damage and dangers of their business to the environment. The owners of the plantations around Labuk bay have gone so far as to set aside a large amount of rain-forest on their land and have established a thriving proboscis monkey sanctuary.  And the sight of a massive, decrepit looking palm oil processing plant sitting in the middle of a vast sea of palm trees; spewing out noxious exhaust from its chimneys and smokestacks; and harboring a swarm of equally filthy, smoke spewing trucks overloaded with palm oil fruits is every bit the stuff of nightmares.  And arguably, palm oil is better for you than trans-fats but this doesn’t mean it is a healthy alternative. I will still avoid it as much as possible when making my own personal food choices, though after seeing some of the sustainable farming I may stop short of a total boycott.

Borneo Palm Oil Plantation

Big business. A palm oil collection point.

There is a strong push toward sustainability. Public outcry has had an effect and the destruction of the rain forest, at least in the parts of Borneo we saw, is being limited. Palm plantations are being regenerated on land previously being used for either palm or other crops.  Our visit to Sabah strengthened my belief in the necessity to strike balance in our lives both in the microcosm of our personal lives, as well as the macrocosm we must live with. I certainly hope this balance can be reached in Borneo before too much damage has been done.

Borneo Palm Oil Plantation

Finally, a sense of perspective. This weekend we were driving through some of the major wine regions of Germany and France. The damage to the land from clear cutting forests in these regions has been taking place in a massive scale for some time now. But I don’t hear too many pundits arguing the case to stop growing and consuming wine.

Borneo Palm Oil Plantation

It’s an age-old issue and one that is not going to be diminished anytime soon.  As travelers we see it all the time, the crush of humanity, the fight between modern and traditional.  We see the changes made all in the call for money or technology advancement.  We see it, and we feel helpless.

I’m sure you have experienced this in your travels as well.  Where have you been that really made you think about these issues?  Tell us about it in the comments!

Here’s a couple of links If you’d like to do a little reading on both sides of the palm oil debate…


  1. I am so glad that you are bringing this to people’s attention. From what I read, the threat to wildlife by the destruction of natural habitat is becoming a problem. There have been reports of elephants wandering out of protected forests and ruining crops. The landowners then retaliate by poisoning the elephants. Last year, 14 endangered pygmy elephants were found dead from poisoning. The Sabah government is hoping to reduce tension by increasing the acreage of the protected habitat.

    1. Michele, That is very interesting. When we were in one of our hostels, I was told pygmy elephants are hard to find these days and it was said rather cryptically. I guess that is why…how sad! I can’t imagine! I hope something gets done about this soon!

  2. The land clearing and the harm to wildlife makes me absolutely sick to my stomach, Corinne. Literally. I try to make sure I’m not a hypocrite of anything/anywhere in the world where harm is being done and it results in a product that I use. I just hope I can see a huge resolution to this global mess in my liftime. Makes me so sad 🙁

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Send this to a friend