For most of my life I have been a birdwatcher and a writer and performer of generally fairly frivolous shows. Two areas I have never been comfortable with – politics and finances. It is not that I am perversely not interested, it is that I don’t understand the language. However, one of the perks or pains of being a "public figure - or even a "celeb" - is that I am often asked my opinion. Some time ago I gave myself a couple of rules: 1) Don’t try to be an authority on something I am not; 2) Do consult an authority that will tell me the truth. When faced with an environmental topic this means consulting relevant NGOs, and if possible going to see for myself. If the issue is British - badgers, the shooting industry, snaring or poisoning of birds of prey – it is all too close to home. However, what about the desecration of wildlife or habitat in far away places? For example, Malaysia.
Last autumn, I visited the Sabah area of Borneo with a group from The World Land Trust. Their principle is to literally buy areas of land and then hand it over to local organisations they trust to manage and protect it. To fully authenticate their name they do indeed have projects all over the world. Having experienced unspoilt forest and encountered Pygmy elephants, Proboscis monkeys, Orang-utans and several canoes full of appreciative tourists, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with a green wall of spikey fronged oil palms. Of course, I had heard of how destructive oil palm plantations are before – haven't we all - but few things really register till you see them up close. These palms whose cheap oil is used in products from fast food to chocolate to lipstick but is rarely ever labelled!
At first, I barely even noticed the plantation. For first timers it’s not what you would initially associate with deforestation, like a stretch of flattened forest after the loggers have been through. Yet this is exactly what you would have seen had you been here some years before, when the forest was cleared and just a few palm leaves poked through the smouldering ground. It is now a green and seemingly endless expanse of leafy desert. Despite what the palm oil lobbyists will tell you, oil palm plantations virtually wipe out the biodiversity found in rainforests. Just 20 species of birds are found in oil palm plantations, whilst other rainforests support over 200.
Since my return, I've seen the evidence which shows that Borneo has become an island within an island, its remaining forests surrounded by a rising tide of oil palms. I pondered about the minefield of dilemmas involved in 'exploiting' a country's natural resources. Many of these are political and financial and therefore hard for me to decipher. Yet they are also straightforward moral questions, requiring unambiguous words and concepts such as ‘human rights', ‘deceit’, ‘greed’, ‘dishonesty’ and ‘corruption’. More and more, I have heard people devoted to the monstrous yet noble task of protecting the world’s habitats and wildlife say that the biggest battle is against corruption - the politicians and businessmen in cahoots to enrich themselves.
Which inevitably brings us back to politics and finances. It also means that I myself turn to people I feel I can trust to explain exactly what is going on. I was directed to Global Witness and on their website saw an astonishing film showing corrupt deals in action, shot secretly in Sarawak, part of Malaysian Borneo. I was also horrified to discover that some of the least reputable companies who are at the forefront of ripping up Borneo's forests and turning them into oil palm plantations are supported by Britain's biggest bank, HSBC - a bank whose PR campaigns led me into believing it was environmentally friendly.
It seems to me that in the world today there is one commodity which is become scarcer and scarcer. It is called the truth.
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