Adventure to Sumatra Part 3: The Other Side of the Coin

Kota Kinabalu. Malaysian Borneo. March 2014.

I was talking to an older Australian gentleman about the rubbish around us and the seemingly callous disregard for its lack of purposeful placement. The few bins that were dotted around the Kota Kinabalu night market were overflowing; the beautiful marine reserve in which I was to dive the next day seemed to be absorbing the rest of it.

2014-03-18 19.36.41-2He told me that it takes a lot to change to a culture. 30 years ago it was normal to litter in Australia. “You’d just throw your rubbish on the ground. It wasn’t until the Keep Australia Beautiful campaign started to push that we realised it wasn’t OK to litter.” New Zealand followed the same suit.

These days if you see someone litter you’d say something: it’s socially inappropriate and even illegal to litter. The normality of putting your rubbish in the bin is drummed into us through schooling to the point where it’s the social norm. But it wasn’t always like this. It took considerable time, effort and willingness for this change to happen.

Below are two short tales that I believe, without saying it explicitly say just enough. There is no solution to be found here, merely observations that I felt are worth sharing. I’d welcome your comment and discussion.

The Rubber Man

For one short week after my time in Sumatra I found myself in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo; the Northern, Malaysian section of third largest island in the world. Home to the oldest rain forests in the world which house unique wildlife such as rhino’s, orangutans and many bird species.

I’d hired a motorbike to get to the tip of Borneo. Mostly, to get out of the touristy town of Kota Kinabalu and also, I wanted to see and breathe some rain forest.

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When I got out of KK I saw rich beautiful bush and my smile grew wide. But this was short lived. Soon after, I came across vast plantations. Scattered on either side of the highway and stretched as far as I could see, I saw the new, unfortunate synonym of Borneo: palm oil.

They were leafy trees, around 5m tall, evenly spaced. Stretched to the horizon; a flat green canopy with a bare brown ground. This was my scenery for the next two solid hours of driving.

As I continued into the midst of the Borneo plantation I felt the air growing hotter, thicker. A contrast from the lush, rich habitat that I’d expected, and that once was.

Indonesia and Malaysia, who share the Island of Borneo (along with Brunei) are big suppliers of palm oil, the cheapest vegetable oil that exists. It’s used in all sorts of things and is the biggest culprit of deforestation and habitat destruction on the planet.

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Palm oil plantations as far as the eye can see.


The reason palm is so bad, in addition to the deforestation for planting, is that oil palm is a big, hungry, leafy plant. It creates so much shade that nothing else grows on the ground. Following a palm plantation the soil is unusable for many years, because the nutrient has all been used up.

I’d heard this story just before I left from a dive instructor: only two animals exist in a palm oil plantation: rats, who’s population explodes with no other ground cover and owls, introduced to control the rats.

“Since 1984, the area of Borneo planted in oil palm has increased ten-fold, and today covers some 4.2 million acres in Sarawak and Sabah and 3.2 million acres in Kalimantan.” (link)

Later, the scenery changed a little and I stopped to get petrol from a shoddy roadside stall. This is the kind of place where petrol is a yellow liquid sold in PET plastic bottles. Brilliantly simple.

I hopped off my bike and saw a man working under a small shelter nearby. When I approached he greeted me with a warm smile and a gentle curiosity. I engaged in as much small talk as I could gesture. He was making gongs for the gong factory that sells to tourists. His three children were trying desperately to grab my attention whilst playing on the bonnet of a car that needed work. They were sliding down it over and over, extracting as much joy from the activity as possible. What a wonderful way to spend a day, I thought.

After some general friendly chit chat I made the comment “There’s a lot of palm oil plantation around here.” Hoping for some insider commentary. He simply nodded in acceptance. I grimaced and cautiously asked (because I wanted to like this man) “Do you grow palm?” We both remained respectively smiling and grimacing. “Rubber” he said, and pointed at the tyre of the car he was working on, then to the area around his house. “A few acres.” His smile grew into one of pride.


Rubber is another crop that grows well here. It’s not as prevalent as palm and not as destructive but the environmental concern still exists.

I bought petrol for 4.20RM. I gave him 5 and said to keep the change. He quickly said no and shuffled around. I insisted him take it but it was too late, he ran back inside and got .80 to give to me. I liked this man. But it’s hard recognizing that it might be people like this man who own the palm oil plantations that are responsible for habitat destruction.

When I returned to New Zealand I drove from Christchurch to Dunedin and all I saw for four and a half hours was farm land. There seems to be a trade off between natural beauty and the economic wealth of a nation. We made this trade 150 years ago and have been enjoying the fruits ever since. They, on the other side of the coin are in the midst of that development. I suppose he’s got mouths to feed, just like we do.

The writing’s on the wall.

On the final day of the Sumatran trip we were being driven back to Medan. A four hour journey with a view from the safety of our car windows. I saw some sections of dense greenery followed by sections of crops. All interspersed with bustling, dirty little towns. We’d just entered one such town and I noticed out of the corner of my eye some graffiti on a rather ordinary public wall:

The cartoon depicted a farmer being strangled by a fat snake, coiling around his body. The head of the snake turned into a suit-wearing evil, grinning character holding a knife and fork, eagerly about to eat the farmer. The farmers face showed horror.

Above it a caption read “Anti-money politics”.

Anti-money politics… I imagined it drawn by some audacious young rebel, not too different in personality from a bare-foot environmental campaigner here; but living in the exact opposite paradigm.