Faisal Noor is certain that virgin forest will grow again here, where the huge plantations have left little more than weeds and vines. The scientist points to the north: "Back there is one of the largest protected areas on Borneo." He points to the south: "There are still 50 orangutans living in the remaining jungle there. But isolated by the surrounding plantations - they could soon die out due to inbreeding." To prevent this, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is creating a seven-hectare ecological corridor between the two areas. A green carpet is rolled out for the "people from the forest", i.e. the orangutans, where the people from the city have hardly left anything left. Noor, 51, an agricultural scientist and ecologist, heads Nature Repair.
What do orangutans need? Roughly the same as humans: shelter, food, protection. That's why several such ecological corridors are now in the works - and that has to do with the product that made them necessary in the first place: palm oil.
Oil and its producers have a bad reputation. In Indonesia and Malaysia, which cover over 80 percent of global demand, rainforests have been cleared on a gigantic scale in recent decades. Borneo, the third largest island in the world, is shared apart from a small sultanate by Indonesia and Malaysia. Around half of the deforestation there was caused by plantation operators.
But now the Malaysian state of Sabah has announced an oil transition: by 2025, very soon, palm oil should be produced 100 percent green; a third of the region is placed under strict protection. Authorities, environmental organizations, companies, large plantations and small farmers are working together in a concerted effort.
Your most important lever is the RSPO seal. The abbreviation stands for "Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil" and is the answer to the German and European push for clean supply chains. The German Supply Chain Due Diligence Act, which came into force this year, makes the regulations even stricter. The unwieldy name of the law sounds like quintessentially German bureaucracy - but in fact it has effects worldwide: companies based in Germany must from now on keep an eye on their entire supply chain and prove that they are investigating grievances.
The RSPO seal is awarded to producers who respect human rights and environmental protection. Certification is still voluntary; controls are difficult on the huge plantations, but it is an important first step.
The oil boom broke out earlier in the Malaysian province of Sabah than in Indonesia. But then they were overtaken in terms of acreage. The state can only make up ground with certified palm oil, which fetches higher prices. The associated ecotourism should bring in further income.
We come across palm oil in many products in the supermarket. In chocolate spread as well as in skin cream and frozen pizza. The major environmental associations therefore consider a boycott to be pointless. Other vegetable oils, such as those from coconut palms, require five to six times more area per liter than oil palms. Conservationists are therefore not calling for cultivation to be stopped - but rather for it to be changed and made more sustainable. That's why the WWF co-founded the RSPO seal around 20 years ago.
Today, 20 percent of global production is certified according to its criteria. These include: ban on deforestation, no plantations on peat soils, compliance with environmental laws and human and labor rights.
In English, these principles are abbreviated NDPE: No deforestation, no peat, no exploitation. Large corporations in Malaysia are also gradually trying to convert their production to follow these principles. Datuk Bacho, 60, director of the Sawit Kinabalu group, states the reason openly: "We don't want to lose Europe as a sales market." As a result, the destruction of the rainforest in Sabah was largely stopped. An EU regulation on “deforestation-free supply chains” that is likely to come into force soon is officially criticized as unfair, but secretly Sabah is hoping for competitive advantages because it is further along in stopping deforestation than other regions. Nature conservation becomes a competitive advantage.
The biggest problem in Sabah is still the huge plantations that stretch from horizon to horizon. To understand the dimensions, imagine a Bavaria, about the size of the province, with a fifth of it covered only with sunflowers. Beautiful yellow at first glance, biologically dead at second glance. It's the same in green with the palm trees in Sabah.
In order to move away from huge plantations and become more sustainable, environmentalists are also relying on small farmers, who already produce almost 30 percent of the liquid gold in Sabah.
On that day, the farmer invited Wasrizan bin Basri, 42, into his living room. His farm is 1.2 hectares in size – a typical small farmer size. Wasrizan had it RSPO certified and he now wants to tell you about it. A dozen farmers from the area came. Everyone is sitting on the floor, the women in colorful dresses and headscarves.
Wasrizan starts with bad news: It is quite complicated to get the certificate. Your own land has to be surveyed, paperwork has to be done, the annual inspection. Then the good thing: “We are supported every step of the way.”
The organic farmers receive free help from Wild Asia, a social enterprise in which around 2,000 small and medium-sized farms have come together. The idea behind it: Together it is easier to meet the requirements for a transparent supply chain. The farmers are instructed on how they can fertilize in a more environmentally friendly way. And the additional income they receive for certified palm oil is largely passed on to the members.
Bin Basri's presentation seemed to convince most people in the group, also because he was able to present good arguments. He has expanded his range to include pineapple, cucumbers and beans. This provides him with additional income, he says. General nodding. Being more independent from oil would also appeal to them.
Finally, he reports on his latest step: "I'm organic now too - at least part of me." Laughing around. Wasrizan now applies natural fertilizer that it produces itself. And he knows what the arguments are: "The soil has become much wetter than on the other plots. And the yield has increased." The best thing, however, is that he saves a lot of money on artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Again there was a nod of agreement from everyone around.
Another tea, then everyone goes over to Wasrizan's neighbors. 42-year-old Muharram runs his farm completely organically. He demonstrates how he chops palm fronds, which are also cut off to expose the fruit heads, with powerful machete blows and stacks them for composting. "We don't throw away plant waste. Everything can be used to make the soil more fertile," he explains to those standing by. He planted ginger in long rows in the palm grove. "It also thrives in the shade. And brings in additional money." Beads of sweat on his forehead and arms, he also talks about the challenges of switching from conventional to organic farming: "I have to work physically harder than before, when I simply sprayed away weeds."
Wild Asia wants to convince farmers with tangible advantages. In workshops they also learn how to produce highly effective organic fertilizer from fish waste. And that additional fruit trees are good for biodiversity and also for the household budget. A study by the University of Göttingen confirms the concept. Accordingly, palm monocultures can be broken up with tree islands without reducing oil yields. This is also important because demand for palm oil continues to rise worldwide. With an annual consumption of more than 70 million tons, it is the most important vegetable fat.
After the small farmers, the industry giants should also be convinced. WWF and Wild Asia are pushing to gradually make all plantations more natural. The conservationists also keep an eye on the oil mills.
The Kim Loong mill is located in the middle of the company's own plantation. “We have the Malaysian MSPO certificate,” explains manager Lee Kim Seng. This means that 90 percent of the European requirements for transparent supply chains are met. He then leads through the gigantic complex. Trucks dump tons of fruit bundles down a ramp. Each of them weighs 20 to 30 kilograms. A conveyor belt transports them into steam boilers, where they are sterilized. The palm fruits are separated from the bunch, then the pulp from the seeds. The oil is pressed out of both components. Lee likes the smell that permeates the entire mill: "It smells like a bakery." Sustainability is an important value of his company, he explains. Methane produced during the process fuels the biogas plant right next to the mill. Empty fruit bundles are brought back to the plantation for composting. Small farmers who deliver their harvest receive free bags of nutrient-rich leftovers from production as fertilizer.
The company is also making its first attempts at organic farming. Palm trees grow on five hectares without pesticides. “If it is consistently shown that savings in chemicals offset the additional costs of manual work, we will increase the organic content,” says Lee.
But the Malaysian province of Sabah, where things are now going better, is still an exception. In other regions of the world, environmental groups criticize, deforestation continues. In West Africa and Brazil, virgin forests continue to be cut down for new planting, also because many large buyers still buy uncertified palm oil. And this despite the fact that a fifth of global production already bears the RSPO seal, meaning large quantities of the eco-friendly variant are available.
Environmentalists also criticize that RSPO is not an organic standard and that even toxic pesticides are allowed. “We urgently need political guidelines so that imported palm oil must meet strict ecological and social criteria,” demands Ilka Petersen, a consultant at the WWF. Voluntariness is not enough to reform the palm oil industry. The planned EU directive for “deforestation-free supply chains” is heading in the right direction.
The supermarkets, where consumers encounter palm oil products, are also becoming increasingly aware of how important the supply chain issue is. In a global study for which the WWF examined 173 companies, German chains did quite well. In the top places are Edeka, Kaufland, Aldi Süd, Rewe, DM, Rossmann and Lidl. The catch: So far, only a few of the many thousands of products containing palm oil bear the green palm, i.e. the RSPO logo. It is difficult for consumers to do more for sustainability in their purchasing decisions.
Beiersdorf, for example, the manufacturer of Nivea products, relies on emulsifiers and surfactants that are obtained from palm oil. When asked, the company explains: It has only been using sustainable oil for three years. You can trace its origin back to the plantations and know the supply chain for almost 100 percent of the purchasing volume. Six percent of the raw materials come from Sabah. For the end consumer, all of this is hardly visible on the supermarket shelf.
Beiersdorf has recognized that sustainability is increasingly a reason why customers choose a brand. This is probably one of the reasons why the company is sponsoring one of the ecological corridors in Borneo, which is intended to become a kind of treetop path for orangutans.
The WWF has proven that such renaturation works. New virgin forest began to be planted in the Bukit Piton region 17 years ago. Today laran trees and other rainforest giants are rising into the sky again. There are traces of Bornean elephants in the grass. The cries of the rare hornbills ring through the humid air. The orangutans have also returned; Their population in the new forest is considered to be stable, albeit at a low level. On a two-day safari, the guides can show you lots of sleeping nests in the canopy - the monkeys build a new one every day - but the "man from the forest" remains invisible. He has become a rare guest.
50 years ago, it was estimated that there were almost 300,000 orangutans living in Borneo. Only a third of them survived the massive clearing. Today, tourists can usually only admire them in reserves, such as in Sepilok near the city of Sandakan. Orphans whose mothers were shot by poachers are raised there. The little ones learn from their elders how to build a sleeping nest, climb trees and look for food. When they are fit for the jungle, they are released into the wild. Twice a day there is show feeding, during which people sometimes make a fool of themselves and drum on their chests.
Faisal Noor, who wants to use his corridors to build paths from the reserves to freedom for forest people, says: "We have shown that you can plant new forests and that wild animals actually come back. So we have to do that too."
Stern and the freelance authors and photographers collective Times Mirror Reports are dedicated to one of the most important new German economic laws - the Supply Chain Due Diligence Act, which came into force in January 2023. What do the new rules mean for German companies? What kind of people in the Global South? What kind of customers and consumers? This project is funded by the European Journalism Center and supported by the Bill