After an incredible day with allies at Save Our Borneo, an organization working on the frontlines of Central Kalimantan’s oil palm expansion frontier documenting human rights abuses, RAN Asia Program Director Lafcadio Cortesi and I took a night bus from the city of Palangkaraya to Pangkalanbun. Even though the passing landscape was shrouded in the darkness of night, the sea of oil palm plantations beyond the road stood out throughout our entire 11 hour journey – not surprising as the province of Central Kalimantan has one of the fastest rates of oil palm expansion in Indonesia, and perhaps the world.

Around 3am Laf rushed me out of sleep and off the bus just as it was lurching forward to continue on; everyone stared at the sleepy bule (white girl) with the crazy hair who couldn’t find her shoe and held up the whole bus. Our taxi driver stopped in a dark field in the middle of nowhere and announced our arrival. It was around 4am when we arrived to the outskirts of the small port town of Kumai at the office of Friends of the National Parks Foundation (FNPF), the incredible organization my colleague Laurel visited in Bali earlier this year that has a similar community reforestation program in Borneo.  After brushing my teeth next to a massive spider I collapsed in a makeshift bunk bed using my rain jacket for a blanket and a t-shirt for a pillow and fell asleep to the sounds of Indonesian sunrise: loud Muslim calls to prayer, a singing gecko, a rooster crowing, and a chainsaw running somewhere behind the little shack we slept in.

A few hours later I awoke with anticipation and stumbled outside to use the squatting shoot toilet and saw in the center of the office floor tea and two small plates each with two individually wrapped donuts. After not eating refined sugar for almost a year, I wasn’t planning to touch them with a ten foot pole. But Lafcadio warned me, “Ash, we’re in the bush now. You have to eat every meal as if it’s your last.” So I ate the small buttery donut with chocolate sprinkles on top, finding it quite comical that people eat such things in the morning or at all, but felt grateful to have something in my belly before setting out on our adventure.

We raced on motorbikes through the small town lined with fruit stands and curious faces until we reached the edge of the expansive Kumai River. We traveled by speed boat to the small mouth of the Sekonyer River, the gateway to Tanjung Puting National Park – a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and one of the last strongholds of the endangered orangutan. Despite the incredible importance of Tanjung Puting, the park is under serious attack from illegal logging and mining operations as well the most ominous threat – the encroachment of palm oil.

I saw a huge “Welcome to Tanjung Puting National Park” sign and tingled with excitement by the hopeful prospect of actually seeing an orangutan in the wild. Since joining RAN’s rainforest agribusiness campaign over two years ago, the extent of my personal connection to orangutans and natural forests in Indonesia was purely academic. I had spent years reading and writing about the dire consequences of industrial scale oil palm plantations in Indonesia: one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, critical habitat for endangered species like orangutans destroyed, gross human rights abuses and labor conditions, and social conflict between communities that depend on the forests for their livelihoods and the companies destroying them. This trip was going to take my theoretical understanding to a new level.

What these impacts actually look and feel like on the ground is staggering, and I found it hard to believe that even on the edge of a globally treasured and protected national park I encountered the most severe case of palm oil expansion I’d witnessed yet. What I saw during the ensuing four days was more extraordinary and devastating than anything I could have imagined.

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The weight of my realization about what’s at stake in that small corner of the planet hit me hard the day we spent the morning walking through old growth tropical rain forest, seeing wild orangutans, Horn Bills, Proboscis monkeys and the recent evidence of a Sun Bear clawing a tree for honey, followed by an afternoon of watching an excavator tearing down and digging a drainage canal in one of the last areas of natural forest remaining in the buffer zone of the park. We were on the edge of a community agroforestry project designed to demonstrate an alternative to destructive monoculture in an area almost entirely razed by oil palm plantations.

In the same passing moments that we watched, horrified, an irreplaceable, high density plot of biodiversity falling before our eyes, two FNPF staff yelled for us to look up and see the two horn bills flying over head and the rare red langur monkey peering at us through the trees.

The reckless, short-sighted expansion of oil palm plantations in Central Kalimantan is pushing many of these species to the brink of extinction, literally leaving them with nowhere to go. The site we documented was horrifying – we stood in endangered orangutan habitat and we saw a pregnant mama orangutan with her young orangutan trapped – sandwiched between an oil palm plantation and the river, unable to cross over into Tanjung Puting.

To reach this devastating scene, we rode on motorbikes for almost an hour, passing rows and rows of industrial oil palm plantations. The deeper in we got, the more severe the picture. The drainage canals along the edge of the plantations were filled with water and dark black, carbon rich peat soil exposed the troubling reality that much of this plantation was on top of peat soils and thus emitting massive amounts of CO2 as it rots upon touching the air. In the converted peatlands, many of the oil palms were growing sideways and some even falling over. It seemed certain that the yields were marginal and the costs – the loss of a thriving and rare ecosystem and community livelihoods — was great. I wondered whether the Indonesian law prohibiting conversion of deep peatlands was being violated. Peat clearing is still allowed under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

In addition to its massive plantation growing on top of cleared and drained peatlands, at the expense of primary forests and irreplaceable species, and the fact that this biological desert is right up against a national park housing endangered orangutans, the company is also grossly disrespecting the rights of the local community.

The vibrant Sekonyer community of just over 100 families sows deep seeds of resistance into the backbone of village life. Immediately entering the village (by water – the only way to access it), we saw two huge protest banners and a large sign reading, “PT Bumi Langgeng: Return the Rights of the Sekonyer Community.” The community depends on the forest for their livelihoods and sees the encroaching palm oil as a threat to their reliance on community food gardens, agroforestry, and fishing.

We visited a tiny stilted hut next to the agroforestry site and drank hot tea with the beautiful couple and their baby that lived there. We washed the thick layer of mud that was caked on our feet and legs from trekking through the peatland destruction site barefoot. Our sweet FNPF guide Basuki urged us to leave; he could see thick gray clouds and the rumble of a monsoon rainstorm moving in. As we hauled ass through the muddy roads back towards our boat in the village, the heavens opened up and as if crying trillions of tears for all the beautiful beings losing their homes in that forest, it poured. Just when we thought it couldn’t rain any harder, it did. Our motorcycles were sliding and slipping all over the place and we actually fell over a few times. Basuki had to take his flip flops off and use his feet as stabilizers to get us home safely through the thick, wet, muddy terrain.

Relieved to have made it back safely, we stripped off our drenched clothing and ate a typical delicious dinner of white rice, tempeh, veggies sauteed in coconut milk and fruit while the mosquitoes feasted on my thighs and feet. During our stay in the community, we slept under mosquito nets on a boat on the river’s edge. Our second night in the community FNPF Borneo director Basuki organized a meeting between RAN and 25 community leaders. We learned that the community has been at odds with the palm oil company in the area for many years over a land conflict but that in the last several months, community resistance has escalated as land clearing continues at breakneck speed.

When the company cut down the community’s native rubber trees around six months ago it triggered the first demonstration. Police showed up but no one was arrested. The latest demonstration took place just a few months ago after community leaders sent formal letters of complaint to the company as well as district, provincial and national government seeking recognition of their lands, compensation for the 2,200 ha. of community land already taken by the company and a halt to further expansion into forests and remaining community lands. So far they have not received any response.

This is the true cost of palm oil. Is it worth it?

As the cheapest, highest yielding vegetable oil and now the most heavily traded edible oil in the world I understand that companies benefit from this lucrative industry so dependent on cheap labor and precious yet cheap rainforests. But at what price are we going to continue expanding this commodity? Expansion of palm oil into ecological and cultural biodiversity hotspots needs to stop. The community of Sekonyer needs our support to secure their rights and  justice. The time is ticking for the orangutans and other species depending on the forests; if they can’t be protected  from palm oil expansion on the edge of a national park the prospects for responsible palm oil look grim.

From this experience I will take away the sweet faces of the hundreds of Macaque monkeys who in the mornings and the evenings would sit high in the trees on the west side of the river and then all swim across the river in groups to avoid getting eaten by crocodiles; the loud whoosh of a horn bill taking off for flight amidst the trees above; falling asleep to the intensity of a tropical rainstorm hitting river, a symphony of insects, the gentle rocking of the boat and the warmth of the rainforest holding my spirit; and the inspiring words of the brave community leaders fighting to protect that magical forest.