I live on the boundary between an oil palm plantation and rainforest. In one direction the endless rows of oil palm trees stretch into the distance and in the other direction a wall of green higgledy piggledy flying buttress roots reach up, vines dangle messily and leaves the size of saucers dance in the dripping rain.
I am too young for school but too old to cling to my mother’s skirt. So I wander back and forth between the orderly world of the plantation and the mysterious rainforest with my dogs. They follow me everywhere because I am one of them. They push forward with their curious noses when I hesitate and change direction when they are suspicious. They always know the way home.
As the glow of twilight faded one evening the dogs and I made our way towards the Berembang tree. We followed the stream until it stagnated into a mess of mud and water plants. The Berembang tree leaned over the little swamp like a wise old man with crazy hair and a bad back. We sat down and waited for the show.
A rustle in the trees drew our gaze. Excited tails were wagging. Through the trees a flash of red. And again. A baby orang-utan clutching its mother as she swung through the trees. It was unusual to see them. They preferred to stay hidden deeper and higher in the rainforest. They must be hungry. The forest is getting smaller as the plantation gets bigger.
Another rustle, this time from below. The hair stood on the dogs’ backs, ears pricked. Neighbours from the village, rifles cocked. Shots, splintering branches and then a thud on the leafy floor.
We run to where the villagers are circling the quivering mass of red hair. The mother orang-utan’s eyes slowly glaze over but she holds her baby close. The villagers prise the whimpering baby from her. I weave through the legs of the grownups until I am inches away from the baby and look into her eyes. The face of a child stares back at me in agony. The hands that look like mine reach for its mother. A hand grasps mine and yanks me backwards out of the milieu, swings me around and I am facing my mum. Somehow, she always turns up when I get out of my depth.
The villagers take the body and baby away. We walk slowly back home.
It is dark now. We stop at the Berembang tree and sit under the light show put on by the fireflies. For a little while we are peacefully absorbed in the quiet spectacle of gentle twinkling. Even the dogs lay their heads down to watch.
Mum tells me the bulldozers are coming tomorrow. This is our last show at the Berembang tree. I do not understand and sulk and vent and pout. Mum tells me you cannot feed a family on fireflies. The land is worth more money than the tree and its insects. But how can this be? The Berembang tree is my Saturday night show. There are baby fish and tadpoles in the swamp. Mum says something that makes me feel childish. The villagers who own the land on which the Berembang tree grows had sold up to the plantation who are looking to expand. They have a daughter they want to send to boarding school but they need money to pay for her fees and boarding. I say, “But they work in the plantation, can’t they use that money to pay?”. Mum says all the villagers work in the plantation but they don’t get paid enough. That’s why some of them poached the baby orang-utan. They will sell it as a pet to pay for medicine for a sick child.
I know that sick child. We used to go looking for shrimp in the river together. I want him to get better so I am torn. Why does it have to be the rainforest or us? The fireflies twinkle on in their blissful ignorance of the destruction that lies ahead. The lights glow and fade until my vision fades. Mum carries me home followed by the dogs.
Read Chapter 2: Watching Giants here.
This story is based on Popi’s rough start to life. Pop is the orphaned orangutan that we sponsored through The Orang-utan Project at www.orangutans.com.au. I felt so upset when I started researching about what is happening to the Borneo rainforest and its creatures.
But I won’t be paralysed, feeling like it’s beyond me to help. The activist in me knows every dollar I spend, and not just the money I donate, is a vote for a particular way of life. I want the rainforest in our lives.
Illegal logging and fires for palm oil plantations are decimating Popi’s habitat. As consumers, let’s avoid purchasing products containing palm oil (usually labelled as vegetable oil or fat). Check your processed foods, cooking oil, cosmetics and detergents. Choose ecotourism to provide local communities with an alternative way to generate income while protecting the Borneo rainforest.