Black-Hearted Oil Palm, Half-Hearted Government
You would have heard stories about the wealth of oil palm farmers. They drive the most expensive cars in town and live in luxury houses. One of them even slammed thousand dollar cash in front of a car salesman coz he thought the salesman looked down on him. This sort of story “inspired” lot of people. For years, I have been hearing many people excitedly talked about the bright future of owning an oil palm plantation, wishing that they could also throw cash at people’s face.
Whatever, it is absolutely nothing wrong to be rich, provided that we earn our money in legal way and don’t harm the others. However, the view of oil palm planted right to the edge of the Kinabatangan River is really a disturbing view to nature lovers. By law, 20 Metres of the land next to the high-water mark of bigger river is a reserved area (riparian reserve) of government, and does not belong to the planters. In short, it is a violation of law to use this reserve area for own purpose such as plantation.
The 20-metre-wide riparian reserve will serve as (1) a buffer zone for flood, and (2) migration passenge for wildlife such as Borneo Pygmy elephants. To move to other area with more food supply, Borneo Pygmy elephants have a habit of seasonal migration along the river. The encroachment of palm oil plantation into riparian reserve cut off the migration route of Borneo Pygmy elephant and other animals. It is same as building a farm on the highway, blocking all the cars on the road. As a result, they have to venture into private lands, including villages, thereby causing conflict between them and human.
In the river cruise for 2 days, we were so impressed to see almost no garbage floating on the river. The local community has done a great job to keep the river clean. The Kinabatangan River is also their source of drinking water and fish catch. Since the blooming of oil palm, the ca$h crop, the oil palm mills and plantation have polluted the river with 50,000 to 80,000 tons of harmful chemical and fertiliser every year. If you ask the local fishermen, you would know that there are less fishes nowadays and the contaminated water makes them ill.
Did our government do anything? Yes, they did… well, to be precise, they did “say” something but didn’t “do” anything. Below was what the government said in Daily Express newspaper of May 8, 2006 (more than a year ago):
“Oil palm companies in the Kinabatangan have been urged to ensure their plantation boundaries do not encroach riparian areas (along riverbanks) to avoid the risk of being penalised by the Government. On April 4, Chief Minister Datuk Seri Musa Aman called on oil palm plantation owners encroaching into State land reserves, especially riparian areas, to vacate the areas immediately or face the music… blah, blah, blah…”
Does this sound familiar? Oh ya, they also said the SAME thing in newspaper recently. Some politicians only made some big hooha like last year, then nothing would happen. It is already more than 1 year, but the oil palm plantation encroachment is still there. What is the authority waiting for? Just cut down those encroaching oil palm and lock those owners in jail!
If the environmentalists and press didn’t report the encroachment last month, I have doubt if the authority would do anything, even after 5 years, 10 years, 20 years… The commitment of government on conservation efforts is simply disappointing and a BIG failure (though I really appreciate they remove shark fin from the menu of official dinner). I’m afraid many other issues such as fish bombing, illegal logging… will never end until there is no fish, no forest left..
In fact, 20 metres is not wide enough, so WWF proposes a 150-metre “Corridor of Life” to connect all the small forest patches, which are separated by the oil palm plantation. The vegetation on this corridor needs to be dense enough so the wildlife feels safe to use it. This also allows the elephants to look for girlfriend and boyfriend at other sides, rather than breeding with their family, which will weaken their genes. Otherwise, one day our tourists would see elephants with 6 legs, orang utan with long nose, etc…
The Corridor of Life is a win-win solution to both planters and wildlife. The wildlife can have larger habitat and move freely to get more food, and the planters still can continue their profitable busine$$, without intruding the reserve. I don’t hope too much. A 50-metre corridor is really a good start already. The animals only need a small part of the land mostly situated near the riverbanks, which is not suitable for plantation too due to flood.
But the response from the oil palm plantation owners is like giving a big middle finger to everyone. I saw some clothing like the picture below put along the river. This is to scare away the elephants. I even heard shocking statement like, “It is cheaper to shoot the orang utan than relocating them.”
Next year I will go back to Kinabatangan again to check the progress and take some photos. If nothing is done, probably I can send the photos to the foreigner press, together with a name list of those plantation that encroaches the reserve.
Photos taken in Lower Kinabatangan, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo