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The Palm Oil Crisis in Borneo

The Indonesian Borneo is burning down due to a growing demand for palm oil. Farmers are illegally clearing the jungles along with the peatlands beneath it, which are the world’s largest natural terrestrial carbon sink. 

Borneo is an island in Southeast Asia’s Malay Archipelago, made up of the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, and the nation of Brunei. Although the fires are primarily concentrated in the Indonesian parts of Borneo, all of the countries comprising the island have been affected. 80% of fires in Indonesia are in order to clear land for palm oil plantations, and in 2019 alone, fires destroyed 3,311 square miles, or 8,578 square kilometers, of jungle. Additionally, between August and October, 626 megatons of CO2 were released due to the fires. The fires greatly impact both those who live there and the wildlife native to the area. 

To combat the fires, firefighters work in dangerous conditions, getting paid $8 a day. The fires are sometimes so remote that they must travel by boat and hike miles to reach them, and the firefighters must work for extended periods of time breathing in the toxic air. In the summer of 2019, the fires became so intense that the sky turned orange, and about 920,000 people were treated for acute respiratory problems. The pollution from fires are also putting children at risk. UNICEF stated that almost 10 million people under 18 live in areas worst affected by the fires. A quarter of these children are under five years old, and are particularly vulnerable to the pollution due to their underdeveloped immune systems. 

In addition to the catastrophic effects on people, many animals are also affected by these fires. Borneo is one of the world’s oldest rainforests, home to 10% of the world’s species of reptiles, birds, mammals, and fish. The island’s vast biodiversity is severely threatened by these fires; in particular, the Bornean orangutan has been the most negatively impacted by deforestation. Bornean orangutans are one of the most critically endangered species on the planet due to loss of habitat and the threat of farmers. Many of the orangutans that are raised at the rehabilitation center in Berau, East Kalimantan are unable to integrate back into the wild due to their dependence on and fondness for humans. They will also approach farmers, who view them as pests and shoot them despite it being illegal to kill orangutans in Indonesia. Their population has decreased by 50% over the past 60 years, and continues to do so as their habitat disappears.  

The destruction of Borneo’s jungles is rooted in the demand for palm oil. Indonesia is the largest palm oil producer in the world, and in 2018 the country supplied 56% of the world’s palm oil. Palm oil is used in about half of all products found in supermarkets, such as soap, chocolate and toothpaste. It is also being used for biofuels, which are becoming increasingly popular due to climate policies that encourage the use of alternatives to gas and oil. In March of 2019 the European Union decided that palm oil is not a green fuel, and should not be promoted because it causes deforestation. The EU created renewable energy targets that stated the use of palm oil in diesel will be gradually reduced as of 2023 and should no longer be used by 2030. The Indonesian government, however, filed a lawsuit against the EU claiming that these restrictions on palm oil-based biofuel are unfair. Many in Indonesia have financially benefited from the increasing demand for palm oil, and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo says that the EU’s restrictions are an “act of trade war.” Jokowi wants to increase the portion of diesel blended with palm oil by 50% by the end of 2020, and 100% biodiesel by 2030. 

The forest fires burn through peatlands, which are a type of wetlands that store on average 10 times more carbon than other ecosystems. The peatlands in Indonesia store approximately 28.1 gigatons of CO2, and peatlands are extremely difficult to distinguish once they begin burning. With Jokowi’s push to increase palm oil biofuel and the constant demand for palm oil in the west, the peatlands will continue to burn and immense amounts of CO2 will continue to enter the atmosphere. Without change, Borneo’s people and wildlife will continue to suffer, and the earth’s climate will worsen.



Bannon, Eoin. “EU Labels Palm Oil in Diesel as Unsustainable.” Transport and Environment

“Bornean Orangutan.” WWF, World Wildlife Fund.

“Indonesian Forest Fires Putting 10 Million Children at Risk, Says UNICEF.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 25 Sept. 2019.

Jong, Hans Nicholas. “Indonesia Fires Emitted Double the Carbon of Amazon Fires, Research Shows.” Mongabay Environmental News, 25 Nov. 2019, .

Nathalia, Telly. “Jokowi Says EU Palm Oil Restrictions Are ‘Act of Trade War’.” Jakarta Globe, 11 Jan. 2020.

Schlanger, Zoë “The Global Demand for Palm Oil Is Driving the Fires in Indonesia.” Quartz, Quartz, 18 Sept. 2019.

Wright, Rebecca, et al. “Borneo Is Burning: The Climate Bomb Experts Say Is Fueled by the West.” CNN, Cable News Network, 2019.

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