West Kalimantan Fadeaway



The hairy, ginger-colored primate strutted awkwardly toward us, like an unsure toddler learning to walk, until he halted, squared himself up, and glared. His wondrous gaze of seeming defiance — long arms, the length of his lower body and nearly scraping the ground, drawn to his side like a cocky young boxer sizing-up his competition, his troglodytic fists clinched, and one bushy foot’s elongated toes charmingly curled under – captured the inherently playful, intelligent, and soulful good nature of the species. The back of my neck sprouted goosebumps of excitement as I watched behind a protective window. The majestic Red Ape, as it’s called, was, after all, the ultimate reason I had come to West Kalimantan, an Indonesian sector of Borneo, in the first place. And this glorious, hirsute beast who pranced over to check us out was “Grendon.” He and his kind once roamed the jungle forests aplenty, and lived among its tree top canopy in numbers once so plentiful that the indigenous people dubbed them “orang-utan” or “man of the forest.”


A few days earlier, however, Borneo’s visual environmental marvels weren’t so enticing. In fact, Indonesia’s West Kalimantan was anything but a conservation nirvana. Everywhere I went smelled like smoke. The acrid, musky odor stung the nostrils and hung in the heavy, sticky air as if fire – whether from the burning of tires, garbage, sewage, stoves, peat bogs, internal combustion engines…or the rainforest – was a way of life in all the massive Third World squalor. Looking back, I could have just been imagining the omnipresent stench, but Borneo, which I heard in the late ’90s was the last great, wild, untouched wilderness frontier, now appeared to be a fetid sewer, blighted by the gloomy costs of poverty, greed, and overpopulation, at least in this part of West Kalimantan. But, then again, even upon my in-country arrival at the Jakarta airport on nearby Java, the jaunty taxi ride was so fraught with the telltale signposts of urban stain and decay, from crippled beggars and greasy street food kiosks to moped-choked city centers, that I texted my girlfriend back in California: “The shit just got real.”

But West Kalimantan’s natural marvels couldn’t all be this depressingly, shockingly disheartening, could they?  Where were the protected natural ecosystems and jungles where the last remaining orangutans lived? I mean, here I was, an attorney devoting pro bono time to a non-governmental organization called Orangutan Outreach (“OO”), and touring those charities that struggled at environmental devastation’s ground zero with a group of well-intentioned American environmentalists. But what I saw more often than not was the unethical, coldhearted destruction of the world’s last great rainforests to clear the way for plantations producing Indonesia’s relatively new cash crop, that horrible consumer staple that is palm oil. Indeed, Indonesia’s golden goose had turned the most populous religious (Muslim) country on Earth into a seemingly soulless, capitalist dystopia; a banana republic in the sinister grip of bribe-taking politicians, crooked cops, and the nascent palm oil mafia, all allegedly policed by a toothless trade organization called the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (“RSPO”), an Orwellian moniker for a “greenwashing” palm oil group that operated every way but “sustainable.” The RSPO, instead, is really just the “fox” of palm oil companies watching the proverbial hen house (the remaining rainforest).


So I knew the ethereal pall hanging over the villages and towns near the burning rainforests would be depressing. But nothing really prepared me for the dirty West Kalimantan sights, sounds, and smells of ecological destruction. In a word, it was positively soul-crushing. Palm oil, an ultimately needless, but relatively cheap, commodity in half of the world’s consumer products — from soaps, to cosmetics to candy — and derived from a tree native to West Africa thousands of miles away, had turned Indonesia’s island-dotted archipelago into a gold rush of greed, graft, and corruption. Now Indonesia (like Malaysia, which shares parts of Borneo) desperately needs palm oil for its very economic survival. Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of so much palm oil cultivation – namely, land clearing with only the most extreme prejudice — is the elimination of high conservation value habitat for critically endangered species like the orangutan, Sumatran rhino and Sumatran and Borneo pygmy elephant.

Thankfully for our easily-sapped spirits, patches of green forest, hope and conservation miracles were indeed found in those sanctuaries, rehab centers and protected nature preserves we visited in Indonesia. We saw cute, cuddly baby orangutan-rehabilitants wheeled around en masse in a wheelbarrow, like a bunch of hairy little coconuts, at BOS Nyaru Menteng (https://redapes.org/projects-partners/nyaru-menteng/) before being released back into what few wildlands that remained (their mothers most likely killed in the kidnappings that made them the orphans they were). We watched slow loris nursed back to health with Dr. Karmele Llano Sanchez at International Animal Sanctuary in Ketapang (https://redapes.org/projects-partners/iar-ketapang/). A sweaty climb to the top of an obtrusive, metallic observation tower in the Sabangau National Forest revealed thousands of protected hectares of jungle habitat below currently free for the moment from the environmental rape. After a slow, lazy voyage upriver in a dilapidated, exhaust-billowing “putt-putt-putt” boat straight out of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” we peeked our first glimpse of an orangutan mother and her two daughters in the tree tops of what could graciously be called ‘the wild.”  And on the nearby island of Sumatra, orangutan expert Dr. Ian Singleton mapped out the plat of untouched land his Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme had recently acquired to build its own orangutan haven, a serene world far away from the busy metropolis of Medan, now growing fat and bloated on palm oil money, just tens of kilometers away.

But it’s Grendon I remember most about West Kalimantan. That and how human greed has devastated his rainforest home; a wilderness canopy once so prevalent it literally covered the islands of Borneo (the third largest island in the world) and Sumatra like a massive, astonishing green carpet. I often daydream of what it all looked like before the damage colonialism, industrial development, authoritarian regimes like Suharto – and palm oil — wrought on the once untamed land.

I will go back soon. I’ll want to visit those sanctuaries again, and especially those sweet, sentient, red orangutans, though we can never hold them like the local indigenous people employed as skilled caretakers do, their hands and mouths covered by surgical gloves and masks to avoid cross-species contamination. By then, though, Grendon will probably have been released back into the protected forests that still remain; it takes six years to rehabilitate orphaned and/or displaced orangutans.  But I really know I’ll want to go back for another reason: to see Grendon’s rapidly depleting natural rainforest home before it’s too late and gone forever: the victim of Indonesia’s general, and West Kalimantan’s particular, sacrifice to the palm oil god.


GRENDON, The Great, January 2014

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