Ahead of the Paris Sustainable Innovation Forum, COP21, taking place this month, In Sight spoke with wildlife photographer and filmmaker Mattias Klum, who will be among the many conservationists and activists speaking on environmental issues that threaten the Earth’s ecosystem. Klum has traversed the world as a photographer and filmmaker for National Geographic, documenting ecosystems from the Galapagos to the Okavango Delta in Botswana. But he believes that one of the Earth’s most pressing environmental concerns is palm oil cultivation in Indonesia and Malaysia, illustrated here in his stunning series of photographs.

During the past 20 years, the area under palm oil cultivation in Indonesia and Malaysia has roughly tripled, helping to accelerate — along with logging operations and bauxite mining — the destruction of the region’s remaining rain forests. The loss of these ecosystems, extraordinarily rich in biodiversity, has not only eliminated wildlife habitats, it has also undermined local communities, which depend on the rain forest for small-scale agriculture, forest management and fisheries.
Most people living in the Borneo rain forest get their protein not from the forest itself, but from the rivers flowing through it. Palm oil plantations load up the rivers with sediment caused by soil erosion, gradually destroying the waterways with nutrient overload and pesticides. This degrades fish stocks, which undermines the local people’s access to protein. If salaries aren’t high enough for workers to afford legal food sources, what happens next is an increase in the illegal bush meat trade and, in time, a severe threat to vulnerable and endangered species.
Until recently, such stories didn’t mean too much to the rest of us. If industrial agriculture disrupted a distant community living off healthy local ecosystems, it was dismissed as a development failure — a local problem. But now this is changing.
In an increasingly interdependent world, what happens in Borneo, including raging fires, is affected by and affects societies everywhere. The notion that everyone lives in everyone else’s back yard is the new reality.
This was dramatically demonstrated in 2008 and this year, with massive forest fires destroying parts of Borneo. The island’s forest biome has always relied on the relatively dry conditions of a roughly four-year climate cycle to trigger re-growth of plants and trees. But deforestation has fragmented and opened up landscapes even further. Combined with climate change, which has increased the likelihood of drought, deforestation has introduced fire to a region that had no prior fire regime. In fact, the extreme forest fires are so extensive that they have created an Asian “brown cloud” across Southeast Asia, contributing the equivalent of 30 percent of this year’s global emissions of greenhouse gases. Indonesia, which used to capture carbon with its vast rain forests, is suddenly one of the largest greenhouse gas polluters in the world. The “brown cloud” also reduces the optical depth of incoming solar radiation (one of the nine planetary boundaries), where the thick smog of air pollutants dims incoming solar radiation and functions as a mirror, reflecting back incoming sunlight to space. This cools the planet, creating the paradox of one environmental problem (aerosols from forest burning and combustion) camouflaging another (emission of greenhouse gases). But it also affects regional rainfall patterns, such as the Southeast Asian monsoon, which, in turn, affects the economies of Singapore, India, Hong Kong and beyond.

At this point, supporting local and international nongovernmental organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund in their work trying to manage these forests and resources responsibly and more sustainably is key. As for consumers, we can all try to choose products more wisely. Western consumers will be shocked to learn that they are playing an unwitting part in the continuing destruction of Borneo’s rain forest, not just through purchasing timber, but also through a wide variety of everyday items found in their shopping bags. Chocolate, crisps, detergents, toothpaste and shampoo are all tainted with the damaging environmental and social impacts of palm oil. Avoid products containing uncertified palm oil and instead go for RSPO-certified palm oil products. By doing this, we can all make a difference.

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