How is the Palm Oil Industry Threatening Borneo’s Natural Environment?

Kaya’s Placement Advisor Tom Gore talks about his recent trip to Borneo, an island of incredible natural beauty, but one facing many environmental challenges…

At the beginning of June, I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to visit Malaysian Borneo for a couple of weeks. Borneo is the world’s third biggest island and is divided among three different countries. Indonesian Borneo (otherwise known as Kalimantan) makes up around 75% of the island, whilst the states of Sabah and Sarawak make up Malaysian Borneo and count for an estimated 24% of Borneo’s land area. In comparison, tiny Brunei counts for just 1% of Borneo. The island is one of the most naturally beautiful on Earth, with what is thought to be one of the world’s oldest rainforests, towering 4000 metre Mount Kinabalu and numerous species of animal that can only be found on Borneo. Whilst I was in the area, I took the opportunity to visit a couple of the projects that Kaya work with in Borneo such as our Island Coral Reef Conservation and Diving Project.

With the projects just having moved to a new location near the Tip of Borneo, I was very excited to see how work was going at the new site. The camp site where the volunteers stay, sat just off the beach front, was bustling with activity when I arrived. Having recently finished lunch made from ingredients sourced from the local market in the nearby town of Kudat, everyone was getting ready for the afternoon’s activities. The divers were going off to plant some ingenious man-made reefs that they had created using glass bottles and cement, which will hopefully allow many different types of coral to flourish and in turn help local marine life to increase in number. As for me, I went off with the snorkellers who were collecting data about the reefs and fish numbers in the area. After seeing some incredible sights whilst snorkelling, amongst them a sea snake and a massive golden spadefish, not too mention lots of other species of fish and coral, we all saw something even more extraordinary – the end of the rainbow coming from out of the sea in front of us! The temptation to go diving for a pot of gold was overwhelming, but in the end we all resisted and instead took in the incredible view, with a beautiful sunset starting to roll in on the horizon.

The next day, two new volunteers arrived and I sat in on the orientation with them to learn more about the projects objectives over the next few months at the new sight as the team of volunteers and staff try to get an overview of the new area. It was also extremely interesting to learn about some of the biggest threats are to both marine life and the coral reefs in the local area. One of the biggest factors in threatening to destroy the marine ecosystem in Borneo is, perhaps surprisingly, palm oil. Palm oil is a huge industry in Malaysia with the country exporting around 40% of all the palm oil used throughout the world. However, as the palm oil industry continues to grow, more and more forests are being cut down to make way for the palm oil plantations used to produce the oil. The fertilisers and pesticides that are being used are also killing off coral reefs and poisoning marine life. Therefore, it is clear, and shocking, to see how palm oil plantations are affecting animals both on land and in the seas and rivers of Borneo in an extremely negative way.

This was made even clearer to me further on in my journey as I made the 3 hour journey by land from the city of Sandakan to the little community of Sukau next to the colossal and chocolaty-brown, 540 kilometre long Kinabatangan River. For much of my journey, palm oil plantations were lined for miles on either side of the road, demonstrating just how much of Borneo’s ancient forests have been sacrificed in the name of palm oil and the profits it can harvest. Once I made it to Sukau, I was lucky enough to see many different species of wildlife that Borneo is famous for out in the wild on the banks of the Kinabatangan, including 2 herds of pigmy elephants (the world’s smallest elephant), various types of monkey, including the Proboscis monkey that is native only to Borneo, hornbills, eagles, baby salt water crocodiles, owls and even a python! However, the fact that there are so many palm oil plantations close by, hidden behind the dwindling forests near the Kinabatangan riverbank, means that these animals don’t really have much of choice about living by the river since their natural habitats are continuing to decrease as the demand for palm oil increases.

An estimated 4.5 million Malaysians are employed in the palm oil industry and provides work for some less well off communities who otherwise might not have another source of income. To put that number into perspective, 15% of Malaysia’s population work in the palm oil sector. With this in mind, the question is how to strike the balance between being environmentally friendly and cutting down the amount of products made from palm oil people by without affecting the incomes of local workers in Malaysia. Products made from palm oil make up a surprisingly large amount of the average person’s weekly shop and can be found in everything from food such as cereals, margarine, chocolate and sweets to soaps, shampoos and cosmetics. Therefore, you can make a difference by buying alternative products that don’t use palm oil or products that use sustainable palm oil sources. 40% of palm oil producers are now part of the RSPO (the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) and that number us continuing to grow. Here’s a full list of producers and businesses that use sustainable palm oil.

By questioning what you buy before you buy it, you can make a big difference by forcing other less ethical companies to follow a more sustainable lead in the future.If you would like to join one of the projects in Borneo and help contribute to the great work that the team in Borneo are doing then please don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of our Placement Advisors at or give us a call on 0161 870 6212.