By Adrian Dunn
The wild calls to us. We need wilderness for a sense of something larger and more powerful than ourselves, for a refuge from the constant din of human interaction, for a feeling of awe and kinship with the natural world. It gives us, as conservation biologist Dr. Steve Boyes wrote, “The invigorating feeling that you are not in control of your surroundings, that you are a refugee in a place that is far greater than us, a place with teeth, tusks, claws and horns.” [http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2012/03/28/what-is-wilderness-why-protect-it-a-mission-for-the-future/] It is a place at once foreign and familiar to us. More than a place, wilderness is also a process of living things interacting in a given habitat, a process on which we ultimately also depend.
As Americans, we have had the wealth and the vision to set aside land to be kept wild and have rallied in defense of wild animals and their habitat when these have been threatened. At the same time, we routinely use products from other countries where environmental laws are lax or where extreme human poverty drives encroachment on local wild habitat, threatening or destroying ecosystems far from our shores.
One of these countries is Indonesia, where the tropical peat forest has been burning out of control since July of this year. Slash and burn fires are set to clear land for palm oil plantations and roads are cut into the forest for paper pulp logging. Often these fires are illegally set within areas that are supposed to be nature preserves. Astonishingly, these fires have made Indonesia one of the world’s biggest carbon polluters and have blanketed large areas of Southeast Asia with a thick smoke, closing schools and airports and damaging human health. Fires also threaten the wildlife unique to this area, including orangutan, Sumatran rhino, and the Borneo pygmy elephant.
My niece, Carson Young, a research assistant, has been living in Indonesian Borneo for the last ten months, studying one of the two remaining wild orangutan populations in the world. She is in Tuanan, Central Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, working with the Tuanan Orangutan Research Project. Orang utan in Malay means “man of the forest,” an acknowledgment of their close kinship with humans. One of the great apes, orangutans share 97% of their DNA with humans. They are intelligent primates with an awareness of themselves as individuals. With their long arms that reach almost to the ground, they are both perfectly adapted to and dependent upon living in trees. The forest they live in has a deep floor of peat, which can smolder for months once it is ignited, flaring up to burn trees without warning. For the last two months, Carson and her fellow researchers have had to suspend their research work to help fight the fires that are burning in the nearby forest. They use small gas-powered pumps to draw up water from shallow wells, which they then squirt through hoses onto burning parts of the forest. Only the coming monsoon season can sufficiently wet the peat layers to stop the spreading fires.
Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. It is used in foods like Doritos, cookies, and chocolate, but also in shampoo, soap, and detergent. Through our purchases of these products, the demand for palm oil is kept high. Some palm oil is harvested from sustainable plantations, but much of it is not. For information on how to tell if the products you are using are harvested sustainably or not, the World Wildlife Fund has provided this informative page: http://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/which-everyday-products-contain-palm-oil
The wild is now calling us to take action. As Michael Pollan wrote in Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education: “We are at once the problem and the only possible solution to the problem.” The fires in Indonesia perfectly illustrate how environmental destruction threatens both animal and human health and the health of the planet. Reclaiming our innate connection to the natural world requires us to stand up against the prevailing market forces that threaten the irreplaceable. Once gone, the Indonesian forests and their unique wildlife will not come back. Once burned, the carbon held in the peat forest is released as carbon dioxide, affecting global climate for years to come.
For more information: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/24/opinion/how-to-save-indonesias-forests
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