Into Borneo

I stepped into the car, plonking my bags down in the back. I sat silently for the first few minutes, looking around out the window, at Borneo. I had finally arrived.

I had just met Professor Owen Lewis in the airport, and he alongside Dr. Eleanor Slade were the principal investigators of the project I was working on. Kikiy had come from the SAFE camp to pick us up and we chatted about the life at camp as we set off.

After some time I fell silent, thinking about where I was, and how recently I had just been in England. I imagined zooming out from where I was and seeing where I really was, nested in the midst of a thousand islands of Malaysia and Indonesia. I became a bit unstuck with this thought, and drifted into a long silence.

As we drove off I considered that I was about to see the true extent of oil palm cultivation and the etcha- sketch destruction of the landscape. I had heard and read so much about the agricultural practice behind this crop and its ecological impact since working with Ape Alliance charity in Bristol and it had since become a very important, pivotal issue for me. I sat absorbing the view and talking to Owen and Kikiy, as the hills rolled by, and forest yawned back, giving way to an immesne sweep of oil palm.

Dark green and monotonous, the oil palm landscape blurred by. The term monoculture is completely accurate. As a whole landscape, a primary forest, of ecological complexity beyond what we currently know, is now reduced to a single, alien species. This is one of the most biologically rich places on this planet, and we have erased that rich ecological history, marginalizing and endangering a wealth of life that has taken millions of years to evolve, and replaced it with a single species that didn’t even originate on the same continent. As we drove by, I lapsed into sleep, thinking as I drifted off that I hadn’t actually felt the pang of sadness or loss that I expected. Mostly just excited to be here.

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My reaction to the first time I saw the landscape wasn’t apathy. I have strong feelings about the palm oil agriculture and its ecological ramifications. But upon seeing the landscape, it failed to stir in me what I had expected. There was nothing to compare it to. No primary forest on the border, hunched in retreat. It just seemed like one big piece of farmland. After a while Kikiy stopped the car and we got out. Owen and I walked up to a lookout shed that stood at the top of a hill, and we could see the valleys plains from all directions, a single colour.

From a distance I could see a single, massive tree, far away and distinct against the crinkled edges of distant valleys. It moved softly in the hot, dry breeze. Owen explained that some of the large trees had silica in the wood which ruins the teeth of chainsaws, so they left these alone. Kikiy said that they are also believed to contain ghosts. These were the last remnants of the old growth forest that was once here, dwarfing the squat little oil palms by several times their height. They looked sad, standing isolated, and at the same time surrounded by the crowd of ecological strangers.

We drove on and it grew on me where I was going, deep into a landscape I had never been. The fact that this landscape is human modified is what had really perked my interest to begin with. A previous project I had worked at the University of Bristol was investigating the trophic networks of saltmarsh islands and how they responded to seasonality and habitat destruction. Disturbed landscapes, as human modified landscapes usually are, have a dynamic nature which I find really fascinating. As we rolled over endless hills and patches of forest dressed by swathes of oil palm, it dawned on me that this would be an incredible example. Enormous fragments of secondary forest, with orangutans, elephants, a huge diversity of birds and a huge complexity of plant and insect life. It felt amazing to be here, in the middle of such an experiment.

I had come to work on a study by Dr. Eleanor Slade on the effects of habitat fragmentation and degradation on dung beetle ecology. These were a group of beetles I’ve always had a fascination with, and now to actually have the opportunity be here studying them in Borneo. I was practically giggling with excitement.

We reached camp in the late afternoon and hauled our stuff out of the car. Trestled tables, corrugated tin roofs, vines, grass and happy faces greeted us. This place suited me at once. We met Ryan, a beaming Aussie who showed us around the camp and we dumped our stuff in the dorms. I’ve spent time at rainforest research stations before, in Thailand and Hawai’i, but this seemed very different, bigger and very active. The rest of the day swirled by as I took it all in, wide eyed and absorbing my new surroundings. I had a lot to look forward to.

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