Swinging to the Future, Grasping for the Past

Borneo.  Stylized as a land untamed, this island situated off the Malay peninsula in the heart of the East Indies, is home to three countries and an astonishing array of cultures.  It’s a vast expanse of some of the richest ecosystems in the world, from ancient virgin rainforest on the island’s interior to pristine marine environs that encircle its coasts and satellite islets.  But beside, or perhaps because of, these invaluable resources, the world’s third largest island is a dark harbinger of what lies ahead for travel, and life, in Asia.

When we arrived in Borneo, we went straight to the wetlands of the Kinabatangan River, known for being flush with wildlife, notably its orangutans and endemic proboscis monkeys.  The former were a bit shy, as we saw only three of the loner orangutans in the trees, but the long nosed, super social proboscis were all over, often frolicing through the trees like kids on a playground, but sometimes quietly staring down at us with a look of childlike curiosity.  It’s as though they flocked to the riverside for our benefit, but our guide assured us that they come to the river at dusk to escape the predators lurking under the canopy and cover of night.  This may be true.  However, after spending a couple days in the jungle, we noticed something all too unnatural affecting the behavior of the proboscis, along with every other life form that calls the Kinabatangan home.

Palm Oil.  You probably never realized you consumed it (given its many surreptitious iterations: Elaeis Guineensis, Glyceryl, and Stearic acid, to name just a few), but palm oil is in everything from biscuits to body creams, and 50% of all other products on grocery store shelves.  It’s also produced en masse in Malaysia.  Sadly, the island’s #1 cash crop has resulted in the slashing and burning of countless hectacres in mainland Malaysia and Borneo in the name of returns (roughly $2000 per hectacre per year) dwarfing most other agricultural pursuits.  The rainforest, parts of which are still considered some of the most biodiverse in the world and an invaluable living artifact of our planet’s past, now hangs on by a thread in small patches along some rivers and in parts of the mountainous interior that as yet hasn’t been defiled by the logging industry.  Often, these sanctuaries are protected by the government thanks in part to an ecotourism industry lobbying for their protection.  But in more cases than not, it’s palm oil plantations, rather than their natural predators, that are forcing the proboscis monkeys and their jungle fauna companions to the river’s edge.

Adding to the plight of Borneo’s invaluable ecosystems, are the mostly illegal logging industries that account for over half of the world’s annual tropical timber acquisition.  A microcosm for the developing world as a whole, Borneo will only stay “Borneo” for so long.  By 2022, some experts believe 98% of its forests will be gone.  We’ve traveled through much of Asia over the last year and seen so many places rich in culture and natural beauty compromised – from the countless plastic bags masquerading as jellyfish in the emerald waters of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay, to the piles of trash cascading into the Lay Mro River in Myanmar, and the putrefied streets crisscrossing every city and town in India – all by the careless actions of the greedy few and the desperate masses.  As Asia’s economy grows, its ecology suffers, sometimes with irreversible consequences.  But as we found in the far flung diving haven of Semporna, the continent’s growing economy is ushering in more than just environmental degradation.   

Tourism.  Often seen as a “golden ticket” to the promised land, foreign dollars from the pockets of travelers are highly sought after and considered one of the best ways to grow a developing economy.  We’ve happy obliged to help in such development through the patronage of local hotels, artisans, restaurants, and tour companies over the course of our travels, and Borneo was no different.  After having the jungle to ourselves in the Kinabatangan (we went to a low key, low budget jungle lodge that was away from the bustle of other operators), we arrived in Semporna. Expecting to find a sleepy town of fisherman and the occasional scuba enthusiast, we were instead welcomed by a swarm of tourists…Chinese tourists.  Everywhere.

Much has been made of the Chinese economy, now the second biggest in the world and expected to surpass the US at some point within the next ten years (some say next year, others by 2025).  Regardless of when it happens, the rapidly expanding pocketbooks of many in China and India, the two largest fast growing economies, have already begun to strain the tourism infrastructure of places like Borneo.  As these and other developing countries’ populations begin to experience the “American Dream” of upward mobility, so too do they take on other western values.  Eating at KFC (there’s one in every city we’ve visited…you can sit in a KFC and watch the sunset behind the Pyramids in Egypt), wearing western clothing (the men, particularly, in all the countries we’ve been to, with the exception of Oman, overwhelmingly wear western slacks and shirts), and now travel, have begun to supplant the concerns of these once hand-to-mouth citizenries.

Poverty. The elimination of it on this scale is unprecedented and should be considered a net positive, but it does carry drawbacks that are far reaching and multifaceted.  In addition to the deterioration of the continent’s biosphere, economic expansion increases corporate and sometimes governmental influence over people’s lives, dilutes their cultures, and, as we experienced in the port cities of Semporna and Kota Kinabalu on Borneo, overcrowds areas that had once been peaceful locales.  Of course, my travel buzz can (and should) take a backseat to prospects for progress, especially in places that for so long have subsisted on so little.  But from a traveler’s perspective, the breakneck ascendance of China (and eventually India) threatens to overwhelm a continent that has long delivered us westerners that “something different” to which we’d forever aspired.  

Travel outside one’s national borders is no longer a practice relegated to western society alone.  For every European tourist we encountered in Borneo, we saw a dozen Chinese.  It’s nothing against the Chinese people, per se – they are no more disruptive than any other community of travelers.  But with so many people in a small area, the systems, whether of man or mother nature, begin to crumble.  At times, we were crowded out of boats, denied entrance to parks, and charged exorbitant fees because of the hordes that had descended on the island.  We also witnessed these mobs trampling coral reefs to the point of destruction and tossing their rubbish freely onto the ground and into the sea.

Crystal balls. If, as the famed anthropologist/ecologist, Jared Diamond, sees it, an island is a petri dish for what happens in the world writ large, our experiences in Borneo spell difficult days to come for the Asian ecosphere and travelsphere I’ve come to know and love.  Or, it may be that the glut of Asian travelers is actually the solution to the continent’s environmental woes.  If enough Asians travel through, and are inspired by, their beautiful homeland, they may come to understand the dire need to hold their corporations, governments, and compatriots accountable for their actions. Maybe travel is just the answer the proboscis monkeys huddled on the water’s edge are silently hoping we find.

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