Where the Earth’s Forests Are Deadly Silent

Borneo is ground zero for the destruction of the earth’s rain forest in order to fuel the West’s palm-oil dependence—a place where birds no longer sing and orangutans are homeless.

Mint Images/Frans Lanting

On Nov. 19, 2013, I flew from Montreal to Dubai, where I had a five-hour layover. The transit area was a fabulous bazaar of diamond-encrusted Rolexes, Gucci, Armani, all the luxury brands. Elegant veiled women with petrodollars to burn were floating around the racks and display cases. From there I flew to Kuala Lumpur and got a shuttle bus to the budget motel where we had agreed to meet. It was a stark, Hopperesque facility where nobody ever stayed for more than a night, four stories of concrete in an ocean of oil-palm trees on the way into the city that twenty-five million souls call home. “Your friend is in the courtyard,” the man at the front desk told me as he handed me my plastic key, towel, and little bar of soap. I walked out to the courtyard, wondering if I was going to have any trouble recognizing him—Davie Holderness, my best childhood buddy—after fifty-five years. I had no idea what he was going to look like. But the courtyard was small and there was only one table, and only one person sitting at it, nursing a beer. A white man of my vintage, the left sleeve of his shirt slack. Davie had told me, when I’d finally tracked him down a year ago, in eastern Washington State, how he had lost his left arm fifteen years before when a snowmobile he was traveling on at high speed flipped.

“Davie! I can’t believe it!” I cried to him and he got up and called out, “Panda!” (my boyhood name, inspired by my high Tatar cheekbones and slightly slanted eyes). We hugged and took a good look at each other. Sixty-seven now, he was really distinguished looking. With his wavy gray hair and a thin mustache on his long patrician face, he bore a striking resemblance to Richard Boone in Have Gun—Will Travel, the TV western we used to watch religiously. We sat there together, not saying anything, settling into the fact that here we were, together again after all these years. The waiter brought me a beer, and after several minutes a gusher of memories started to pour out

Memories of Bedford Village, New York, the picturesque old New England community forty miles north of New York City, in the heart of a magnificent hardwood forest, where we had lived until the age of thirteen. The Holdernesses lived across the street, and between the ages of seven and eleven Davie and I had spent all our free time in the woods. We fished every lake, pond, river, and creek in the thirty-nine-square-mile township. Bedford in those days was crawling with frogs, snakes, turtles and in the summer was full of birdsong and the earsplitting drone of cicadas, its meadows blazing with wildflowers and swarming with butterflies. It had a riotous abundance, a fecundity and a profusion of life that has disappeared since then from most of the United States and the world. It was paradise for kids like us.

Then we graduated from eighth grade, Davie in 1959, I a year later, and went off to different boarding schools. My dad got a job in London and we moved there for six years, and by the time I got back to Bedford, at the end of the summer of 1966, Davie had dropped out of Syracuse, and then I heard he went out west and was picking apples in Oregon or maybe Washington, and I completely lost track of him. A few years ago I started wondering where he was and wanting to reconnect with him. He was one of the half-dozen most important people in my life, someone I really loved, and I didn’t even know if he was still alive.

Our paths didn’t cross again until last summer, when I went out to the Big Island of Hawaii to visit the Mauna Loa Observatory for a story I was doing for Vanity Fair—I had become a journalist, and Vanity Fair had been my main outlet since 1986—investigating the human hand in the extreme weather events that are happening now with increasing regularity, almost every month, somewhere in the world. The observatory has been conducting the longest measurement of atmospheric carbon anywhere, going back to 1959. Its director, John Barnes, explained that when they began, there were 200 ppm—parts per million—of carbon in the atmosphere, more than there had been in the last two hundred thousand years. Now there are 315 ppm, and we’re moving out of the climatic sweet spot that has enabled our species to have had such an astonishing spurt of cultural and technological evolution, starting with the agricultural revolution in Mesopotamia ten thousand years ago. Dr. Barnes showed me how the graphs of global mean temperature (Mann’s “hockey stick”) and of atmospheric carbon (the Keeling Curve) both begin to rise in 1750 when the Industrial Revolution gets going, and in 1970 they both shoot up nearly vertically. “I have no political stake in this,” he assured me. “I am a scientist, and the science clearly shows that anthropogenic greenhouse gases are causing this warming spike. There is no other possible explanation.”

So it’s us, I thought as I drove down from Mauna Loa: the burning of fossil fuels since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. First coal, then, with the invention of the internal combustion engine, oil; our growing numbers; the ongoing assault on the world’s forests, whose trees could have removed some of the carbon we are putting into the air; and what Pope Francis calls “amoral consumerism” and “the perverse relationship between the developed and developing world.” What I’ve been writing about for forty years, ever since I saw the horrendous fires in the Amazon in 1975.

I stayed with Zoe Thorne, Davie’s first cousin, who is married to a Hawaiian volcanologist and has been living on the Big Island for years. She said Davie was living in Washington State, and had his number, so I called him and we had a great reunion for an hour or so over the phone and agreed we had to see each other at the earliest opportunity. “Maybe you can join me on one of my adventures,” I suggested, and Davie said, “I’d love to, Panda.”

That fall I went to Borneo to meet Biruté Mary Galdikas and the orangutans she has devoted her life to for a piece about the latest discoveries of cognitive ethology—that animals have much richer mental, emotional, and moral lives than they’ve been given credit for. One afternoon we drove for fifty miles past nothing, to our left, but row after row of oil-palm trees going straight to a hazy low blue ridgeline maybe thirty miles in the distance. Fifteen hundred square miles of some of the oldest and most species-rich and spectacular rain forest on Earth had been totally eradicated to make room for one profitable line after another of Elaeis guineensis— oil-palm trees, with big clusters of oil-rich nuts—flickering past. Dr. Galdikas has hundreds of orangutans in her care center outside the town of Pangkalanbun, confiscated from loggers and pet owners, but there is almost no forest left in central Kalimantan, the southern, Indonesian two-thirds of Borneo, where she can release them. In the late eighties the deforestation rate in Borneo was the most dramatic on Earth, and it’s still happening. Rain forests one hundred and thirty million years old in places, with insects, plants, and other species that haven’t even been identified, are going up in smoke. The Wildlife Conservation Society is calling it the greatest destruction of biodiversity on the planet. And almost nobody in the West knows or cares, even though we are all implicated as consumers of hundreds of modern products that contain palm oil. I knew I had to come back and write about this.

By the following fall (2013) I had a book contract and an assignment from Smithsonian Magazine. I was going to camp in the mountainous heart of the island with some of the last Penan hunter-gatherers, whose forest is being devastated by large-scale multinational logging operations (with most of the timber going to China). Cédric Houin, a brilliantly talented thirty- five-year-old photographer and filmmaker based, like me, in Montreal, was taking the pictures. Cédric had been to the Waorani in Ecuador and visited the Kirghiz nomads of the Pamir, so I was glad Smithsonian agreed he was perfect for this assignment. Plus he was going to shoot video for the pilot of a free-wheeling TV docuseries we were planning to make, to be called Suitcase on the Loose.


I called Davie and invited him to join us, to “return to the imaginary jungle of our childhood” and camp with these gentle hunter-gatherers in the heart of Borneo, who still hunt with blowguns. He was up for it. “I gotta warn you, Davie, it’s gonna be more like Paradise Lost than the Garden of Eden,” I told him. “We’re going to see horrible destruction by the logging, palm plantations, and hydro dams. Ninety percent of the lowland Borneo rain forest is gone.”

I told him we would be in Sarawak, the largest of Malaysia’s thirteen states, which takes up the northwestern corner of the island, west of the tiny but fabulously oil-rich sultanate of Brunei and the smaller Malaysian state of Sabah. “Sarawak, from what I’ve been reading, is the private fiefdom of its longtime chief minister, Abdul Taib Mahmud,” I explained. “He controls all the action and gets a cut of everything, he grants the logging and oil-palm concessions, and he and his family have all these companies not only in Sarawak but in Canada and the United States. According to Forbes his ‘supposed’ personal net worth is $11 billion. Now he’s building all these hydro dams—fourteen for starters, and flooding out the Penan and the other indigenous people in the interior, and there are massive protests at the dam sites that we’ll probably have to go to. The police are reportedly breaking heads. The government is on the lookout for foreign journalists who are trying to expose the corruption ever since two gutsy investigators with Global Witness posing as oil-palm growers caught some of Taib’s family members red-handed on hidden cameras explaining what their under-the-table commission was for a three-thousand-hectare concession of rain forest. There’s not a lot of freedom of expression in Sarawak. It could be dangerous.”

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“No problemo,” Davie said. “I could use a little excitement.”


Davie and I sit together in the courtyard of the motel drinking beer and it’s like half a century hasn’t passed, like we’re just picking up where we left off. We remember so many things so clearly, it’s like they happened yesterday. “You haven’t changed a bit, Panda,” he observes, and I tell him, “Neither have you.” He has become a real gentleman, which is not surprising, given that the Holdernesses belonged to Bedford’s old-line WASP gentry and that he was such a nice person as a boy, a genuinely, congenitally gentle, humble, and meek person. Now he has the relaxed, mellow voice of someone who is in a good place, at peace with the world. “I’ve tried to keep up with your marriages, books, and magazine articles, but there have been so many I’m sure I’ve missed a few,” he tells me. There isn’t the mischievous twinkle he has, I now remember, when he is amused. He says this in an almost apologetic way. There isn’t a sarcastic bone in his body. “As for me,” he continues, “I haven’t done a lot international traveling. The biggest trip I ever took was when I went out west in 1967 and got a job picking apples in Washington, and I’ve been there ever since. I haven’t been back to Bedford since my parents died fifteen years ago.”

The memories and updates keep coming, but the thing that is really grabbing our attention is the miles and miles of oil-palm trees in every direction. “I had no idea this was happening,” Davie says. “This is incredible. This oil must be playing a big role in our obesity epidemic. It’s in everything now. Nestlé, Unilever, Procter & Gamble are probably making billions off it.”

The biggest market for palm oil is India, where it has replaced artery-clogging ghee as the main cooking oil, but there are hundreds of products in America that contain it. Cookies, lipstick, dishwashing detergent, margarine, biodiesel, you name it. It’s what gives chocolate bars their appetizing sheen. Otherwise they’d look like mud. The modern world can’t do without it. Forty to 50 percent of household products in countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, and England contain palm oil, and 80 percent of the stuff comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s a $40-billion business.

“But fifty years ago we were doing fine without it,” Davie says. “I can’t think of anything that contained palm oil, except of course Palmolive soap. So it’s a completely manufactured market, like cigarettes and Coke.”

“And now it’s the second-most important oil in modern postindustrial society, after petroleum,” I say. “It really is incredible when you think about it.” I tell him about an e-mail I just got from another of our boomer contemporaries I was back in touch with, who said, “In some ways we grew up in a golden age, but in others it’s a shame to be part of such a scourge.”

Scourge is the word here all right,” Davie says. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in the middle of anything as depressing and unredeeming and creepy as this. And maybe in fifteen or twenty years they’ll come up with something else, and all this will have been destroyed for nothing.”

Both of us are jet-lagged—Davie flew west from Seattle, and it took almost as long for him to get here as it did for me, flying east—so we turn in early. Tomorrow morning we fly across the China Sea to Miri, the second-largest city in Sarawak, where we rendezvous with Cédric and the guy who is setting up our visit with the Penan, and the adventure begins.

Our little rooms are on the fourth floor, along an open walkway that looks out on the dark sea of oil palm, bristling in the moonlight, which we pause to take in. It is dead quiet out there. No riotous insect din, frog choruses, or birdsong. A sonic flatline. The biophony, which must have been glorious here, has been completely snuffed. Biophony, I tell Davie, is the term of Bernie Krause, a bioacoustician I met in California who spent eighteen years going around the world and recording all kinds of animal sounds, and in the last few years has been going back to the places where he did his recordings and finding them to be dead quiet. “This is a dead zone,” Davie says. “Not silent spring, but silent night.” Both of us shudder involuntarily in the sticky heat that sundown has not dissipated.

I rarely have nightmares, but that night I dream of some postapocalyptic time in the future, 100 to 150 years from now, when there is no natural world anymore. What is not city or other made-over human habitat has been reduced to the monoculture of a single superplant (the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other heavy hitters are already working on this) that gives you everything you need and can be grown anywhere on the planet, in the Arctic or the tropics. Humans have been homogenized and digitized and genetically modified into a single global consumer culture and are spending their waking hours in virtual worlds, encased in multimedia helmets, with no connection to the animals—the superplant having done away with the need for their existence—and the genes that code for this connection, for biophilia, have been spliced out of our DNA, along with the ones for other traits that are deemed obsolete, deviant, or otherwise undesirable.

I awaken from this nightmare to the even greater nightmare of where I am, and wonder: Is this how it’s going to be for my grandchildren? The sort of childhood Davie and I had, in a forest full of wildlife only an hour from a megalopolis, is no longer possible, and this is true of a lot of places. In the village in southwestern Uganda where my wife grew up in the 1970s (and where we were married in 1990), there were zebras and buffalo, impala, baboons, and grey crowned cranes within sight of her hut. That’s gone too. The world my grandchildren are going to live in is going to be unrecognizable, that’s for sure. But Bedford—the place that shaped Davie and me in ways that have lasted our entire lives—is, at least physically, remarkably unchanged.

Excerpted from The Wasting of Borneo: Dispatches From a Vanishing World by Alex Shoumatoff.