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Palm Oil industry threatens to pollute Kinabatangan River

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22 October, 2013 - 12:14 -- World Land Trust
An oil palm sapling planted close to the river's edge

News that oil palm saplings are being planted on the banks of the Kinabatangan next to protected areas - and in open defiance of Sabah state government regulations - has dismayed conservationists in Malaysian Borneo.

Planting oil palm saplings up to the edge of the Kinabatangan River goes against a 2006 state government ruling because it exposes the river to pollution from herbicides and pesticide and threatens wildlife and livelihoods.

The plantation that is openly defying the regulation to leave a riverine buffer zone is located next to Lot 6 of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary (LKWS) and directly opposite the Class VI Pin-Supu Virgin Jungle Reserve, both of which are fully protected areas.

World Land Trust (WLT) has been supporting conservation in Kinabatangan since 2008, and WLT's Borneo Rainforest Appeal aims to raise one million pounds to secure a wildlife corridor along the north bank of the Kinabatangan River. The Kinabatangan region is home to the Orang Sungai community and wildlife species such as Orang-utans, Proboscis Monkeys and Bornean Elephants.

“This is just the latest, damaging move by the palm oil industry in Borneo.”
(Mary McEvoy, WLT Conservation Programmes Manager, Asia Region)

“This is just the latest, damaging move by the palm oil industry in Borneo. It is horrifying to see plantation owners’ blatant disregard of the regulations, which were established in order to protect the river – the lifeblood of the communities in this region,” said Mary McEvoy, WLT’s Conservation Programmes Manager (Asia Region).

“Leaving the river’s buffer intact is already the very least this lucrative industry can do, so it is disappointing when plantations ignore this simply to establish a handful more palms in this fragile area.”

Pesticides and poison

Lot 6 is home to Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC) and Sabah Wildlife Department’s field centre, both of which are visited by students and researchers from around the world.

“I pass this area frequently,” said Dr Benoit Goossens, DGFC Director, “and I am shocked to see that oil palm estates repeatedly plant palms along the river banks without setting aside corridors of forest along the river banks. This is a rainforest and a floodplain and without a buffer it is only logical that pesticides and herbicides may end up in the river.”

“Whatever herbicide or pesticides the plantation uses to maintain their oil palms could also end up in the river and we fish and use the river water to wash.”
(Rosli Jukrana, resident of Batu Puteh village)

Local residents and conservations are also concerned that oil palms are poisoned at the end of their natural life, rather than being cut down.

Members of the local community of Batu Puteh use the Pin-Supu area for tourism activities. Rosli Jukrana lives in the village of Batu Puteh, which is 10 minutes by boat from the plantation.

“Of course, we are worried when we see this kind of activity when it is right next to the river bank and there is no buffer area,” said Rosli, adding: “Whatever herbicide or pesticides the plantation uses to maintain their oil palms could also end up in the river and we fish and use the river water to wash.”

Sabah’s Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun is aware of the matter and has asked for a full report. “It seems my repeated warnings have fallen on deaf ears and the culprits should know the Sabah government does not deal lightly with such errant acts," said the Minister.

Sustainably produced oil palm?

In attempt to work with, rather than against, the oil palm sector, Hutan, WLT’s conservation partner in Malaysia, backs a certification scheme for plantations, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). “To be certified, plantations have to protect water courses with riparian buffers,” said Harjinder Kler from Hutan.

Critics of RSPO argue that plantations only comply with RSPO’s principles and criteria when they want to be certified. Furthermore, there are plantations that are members and still not certified, and many of these plantations are in Kinabatangan.

Leaving aside the question of water pollution, the disregard of oil palm plantations for forest buffer zones also means that islands of forest become marooned in a sea of oil palm, effectively trapping wildlife populations within human made barriers.

“As a geneticist, I am always alarmed by such situations because isolation of wildlife species within small forested areas is genetically unviable in the long term, and leads to decline of genetic diversity and ultimately localised extinction,” said Dr Goossens.

More information

WLT is urgently raising funds to safeguard a strip of forest along the north bank of the Kinabatangan River. This strategic wildlife corridor is being created in partnership with Hutan. It will form a protected linkage between Keruak Forest Reserve and one part of Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary (LKWS), and it has been estimated to cost one million pounds.

Thanks to the success of WLT's Big Match Fortnight in the first half of October 2013, more than £600,000 has been raised towards the target million, but more funds are still urgently needed. Please give generously to the Borneo Rainforest Appeal »


Submitted by Chris Redston on

A disturbing report but sadly not uncommon. I have a query, though. If this is illegal and against government regulations, as the article claims, can't Hutan and the government just go in and remove the offending plants? It sounds like the obvious and legal thing to do... or am I missing something? Also the palm oil companies should be made to pay to have it replanted with native species if they have broken local law. I realise that it's not always easy to enforce these laws in this part of the world, but given the quote from the Minister involved, it seems like it should be possible. Can anyone respond to this?

Submitted by Mary McEvoy on

Dear Chris,

It is indeed disturbing but, as anywhere, the proper investigation must be allowed to take place via the correct channels. Hutan do not have the capacity, resources or authority to take on this activity themselves. They are a conservation NGO and simply helping to highlight something they feel is an issue using the channels that they have available to them. However, we are all greatly encouraged by Datuk Seri Masidi Manjun’s response to the matter and are optimistic that action will be taken as soon as possible. WLT agrees that this should involve removal of the palms in the riparian buffer and rehabilitation of the area back to forest through replanting of native species. We will endeavour to keep our supporters updated on this particular case as and when action is taken.

Mary McEvoy - Conservation Programmes Manager (Africa & Asia regions)

Submitted by Chris Redston on

Hi Mary
Thanks for responding on this point so quickly. Let's hope that the minister comes down hard on these companies that are flagrantly breaking the law. Look forward to more updates when action is taken. Keep up the good work and keep fighting for forests.

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