Abroad Brush Strokes: Dark water and dirty trees in Borneo


Alex Schwartz

A pickup truck travels along a dirt road that runs through miles of palm oil plantations near Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Millions of acres of rainforest have been slashed and burn to clear land for these crops.

Alex Schwartz , Opinion Editor

In this series, a writer recounts his experiences studying environments and natural resources in Indonesia.

The Sekonyer River in southern Borneo changes colors as it flows. As our klotok, a traditional wooden houseboat, sails against the current, I watch the water — light brown, a milky chai — slosh against it. Nipa palms, appearing as fronds without trunks, stick out along the banks, as if growing right out of the water. As the klotok continues onward, taller trees appear and the water begins to look more like espresso than chai.

Suddenly, a flash of ochre sends the passengers and crew into an excited frenzy. High up in a tree, its back toward us, sits an orangutan. We’ve been told they’re not easy to spot in the wild, especially along the river. It’s only a glimpse, but it’s enough to hype us up for what lies further upriver.

Three hours and many bends later, the water is now nearly black, like a forgotten cup of tea left steeping long after it has cooled. In a way, the river itself really has been steeping — in a rich blend of nutrients that have cycled through this environment undisturbed for thousands of years. This is the Sekonyer at its most ancient and pristine: the darker the water, the richer the forest life.

We — a small group of study abroad students— are exploring just a small section of Tanjung Puting National Park, one of Indonesia’s most famous protected areas. A flat area of peat forests and blackwater swamps along the southern coast of Borneo, it was part of the groundbreaking trio of primate observation efforts overseen by paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, which also involved Dr. Jane Goodall’s research on chimpanzees in Tanzania and Dian Fossey’s study of gorillas in Rwanda. Birute Galdikas took on orangutans in Kalimantan (the Indonesian province that covers most of the island of Borneo), enduring an onslaught of tropical weather and diseases to collect thousands of hours worth of data.

The tree dwellers Galdikas studied, while brightly-colored, do not in fact derive their names from the word “orange.” We learn that, instead, “orangutan” comes from a combination of the Indonesian words “orang” (person) and “hutan” (forest) as we disembark the klotok and walk under the shade of the thick forest canopy to Camp Leakey, where Galdikas conducted her orangutan research,and later rehabilitation. Here, we watch wild orangutans emerge from the forest to munch on bananas laid out for them by national park employees.

It’s incredibly special to see orangutans up close, but what truly stays with me are the countless framed messages at the nearby information center that detail the plight of species and environments in Indonesia. They’re printed with facts like “At least 2000 Orang Utan killed each year through habitat destruction” and “Indonesia has 763 species that are threatened with extinction.” It’s hard to conceptualize such a thick, pristine forest disappearing when you’re right in the middle of it. But we’ve been told that on the park’s periphery, just a few miles from the placid Sekonyer, things are very different.

We sleep on the decks of the houseboat and wake up to the sunrise, disembarking onto a smaller, decidedly derelict boat whose wooden planks vibrate with the force of its motor. It continues upriver for a bit, entering a narrow tributary before stopping at a small cove. We get off, then we walk through the forest, the canopy blocking so much sun that it feels like dusk at 10 a.m. I’m carrying three backpacks — a huge one on my back, a smaller one on my front and a daypack on my wrist — and I’m wearing flip flops. Needless to say, I hadn’t prepared for a hike this morning.

After about 20 minutes, during which sweat has turned my shirt from light salmon to rust color, we emerge from the forest and into Tanjung Puting’s buffer zone, a protected area where certain human activities may be permitted. This open area is home to Jerumbun, a research and volunteer site run by Friends of the National Park Foundation, an Indonesian conservation and community development nonprofit. Courageous and passionate environmentalists (they call themselves “foresters”) are abandoning many modern comforts to live and work here, developing localized sustainable farming practices, keeping a nursery of tropical hardwood seedlings and reforesting areas previously cut down and burned.

I drop my gear and look around, panting. The small collection of wooden huts stands at a crossroads. To the east, rolling bluffs and tiny abandoned gold mines sit under the gaze of a lush rainforest canopy. To the west, a uniform landscape of palm trees stretches out for miles, rustling in the wind. They have been planted neatly in rows, their purpose to produce a small fruit that contains palm oil, used in everyday products from from lipstick to soap to ice cream. It feels like a clash between industry and environment happening slowly and painfully.

On our first afternoon at Jerumbun, we walk along a dirt road that runs through the palm oil plantations. Despite the miles of trees I see, I can’t help but think of this as a forest graveyard, the ominous fronds forming a beautiful mausoleum for the land beneath them that has been destroyed. Our hosts tell us how this used to be old-growth rainforest just like the rest of the national park, one that was clear-cut decades ago after the Indonesian government made contracts with palm oil companies to grow the commodity here. The companies burned the chopped down trees, setting ablaze the carbon-dense peat soil below and releasing thick clouds of greenhouse gases into the air.

Soon we learn why the Sekonyer turns milky brown as it flows out of the park: it’s pollution from the illegal gold mines that neighbor those rows of palm trees. I realize Tanjung Puting is not as isolated as it seems from the inside. Buffers are shrinking and industry is creeping ever closer. Soon, the color of the river may not be the only thing that changes here.

Alex Schwartz is a Medill junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.