An interview with Hardi Baktiantoro, Director of the Centre for Orangutan Protection
Despite worldwide attention and concern, prime orangutan habitat across Sumatra and Borneo continues to be destroyed by loggers and palm oil developers, resulting in the death of up to 3,000 orangutans per year (of a population less than 50,000).
Conservation groups like Borneo Orangutan Survival report rescuing record numbers of infant orangutans from oil palm plantations, which are now a far bigger source of orphaned orangutans than the illicit pet trade. The volume of orangutans entering care centers is such that these facilities are running out of room for rescued apes, with translocated individuals sometimes waiting several months until suitable forest is found for reintroduction. Even then they aren’t safe; in recent months loggers have started clearing two important reintroduction sites (forests near Bukit Tigapuluh National Park in Sumatra and Mawas in Central Kalimantan). Meanwhile across half a dozen rehabilitation centers in Malaysia and Indonesia, more than 1,000 baby orangutans—their mothers killed by oil palm plantation workers or in the process of forest clearing—are being trained by humans for hopeful reintroduction into the wild, assuming secure habitat can be found.
Dismayed by the rising orangutan toll, a grassroots organization in Central Kalimantan is fighting back. Led by Hardi Baktiantoro, the Center for Orangutan Protection (COP) has mounted a guerrilla-style campaign against companies that are destroying orangutan habitat in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo. The group rigorously investigates new clearing, documenting environmental transgressions through video, photography, and GPS. It then stages colorful demonstrations and issues media statements presenting evidence against plantation firms, government officials, and even NGOs. COP is also active in schools through its campus program which highlights threats to orangutans and tells students what they can do to help.
COP’s activities have not been welcomed by the palm oil industry. Facing threats, Hardi has had to hide his family and the group’s base of operations. The COP web site has been hacked and its communications tapped, while palm oil companies have offered Hardi tens of thousands of dollars in bribes in an effort to avoid COP’s scrutiny. But Hardi is defiant.
Orangutan with a garden hoe wound from a palm oil worker at a plantation run by Carson Cumberbatch PLC.
“I don’t care if [forest clearing] is legal or illegal. My opinion is that as long as long as orangutan habitat is being destroyed we have to stop it,” he told mongabay.com during a meeting at a COP field site. “Anyone who destroys orangutan habitat and kills orangutans is my enemy.”
Hardi is particularly suspicious of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry-led initiative to improve the environmental performance of palm oil production through a certification scheme.
Hardi says that the RSPO is presently little more than a cover for greenwashing. Pressed for more details, Hardi opens his laptop showing a collection of photos of new plantings by an RSPO member. The pictures reveal what is clearly well-developed rainforest—complete with a tiered canopy structure—being torn down with bulldozers and chains. In nearby areas thousands of palm seedlings dot the overturned earth. Other pictures—including ones taken last week at a site where a plantation company purchased land at $50 per hectare—show canals draining ink-black waters from peat swamps, ecosystems that serve as a massive carbon store and a buffer against flooding. Peat swamp drainage in Indonesia accounts for up to 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions in some years, making the country the third’s largest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the United States.
Draining and clearing of peat forest in Central Kalimantan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
But much of the clearing documented by Hardi is technically legal. While the central government in Jakarta has at times issued declarations banning conversion of rainforests and peatlands for oil palm plantations, the decentralized administrative structure of Indonesia means that these statements are purely political and carry no legal weight. Land-use decisions are made in provinces, regencies, and cities—not by the national government. Further, corruption and political patronage can weaken what environmental rules may be in place, providing opportunities for developers to gain access to forest lands at low cost. In some cases land granted by local officials may already be claimed by communities for traditional use, sparking social conflict. Hardi says that ensuring the rights of local communities is also part of COP’s goal, since these communities, as users of resources from living forests, tend to be better stewards of the land than industrial plantation companies.
“The fact that forest still exists in these areas shows communities are using resources in a responsible way,” he said. “When a plantation company comes in, all that forest is cleared for a monoculture crop. The plantation isn’t going to provide food for families and it isn’t going to provide enough jobs to make up for what is lost by cutting down the forest. These people don’t want to work on plantations anyway.”
Hardi discussed these issues and more during a interview with Rhett Butler in mid-May at a site in Central Kalimantan.
AN INTERVIEW WITH HARDI OF THE CENTER FOR ORANGUTAN PROTECTION
Mongabay: Why did you start COP?
Hardi Baktiantoro: I was working at BOS rescue center in Central Kalimantan. In 2006 we rescued 265 orangutans, which could represent 1500 orangutans killed in the field.
Orangutan rescue. Photos courtesy of COP/ Ferry Latief.
It’s like an endless rescue. It’s useless. If we want to help the orangutan we have to deal with the root of the problem — destruction of their habitat.
I decided to quit BOS and start against the companies directly. In March 2007 me and several of my friends founded the Center for Orangutan Protection.
Mongabay: And what is your objective?
Hardi Baktiantoro: The objective is to save the last remaining forests for orangutans. We have to stop all of the destruction. The best way to protect the orangutan is to protect their habitat.
Mongabay: What is your approach?
Hardi Baktiantoro: We tell people the truth from the field using video and photos. I am a former photographer and I think pictures are the best way to tell people. We gather evidence from the field and send it to the media.
Mongabay: So the palm oil companies don’t like you much.
Hardi Baktiantoro: Of course. We don’t make the palm oil companies happy. They track me. I’ve had to hide my family, my phones have been tapped, and last year the COP web site was hacked.
Some of the big international conservation organizations are also not happy with my group because they just want to make things look good — like the government.
Mongabay: So greenwashing by NGOs — working with corporations without really changing things for the better — is a problem?
Hardi Baktiantoro: Yes there is a lot of greenwashing. It makes the company look clean.
Mongabay: After you’ve done a campaign have any companies been fined or changed their behavior?
Hardi Baktiantoro: We have several victories. Several companies stopped their illegal activities and stepped back from the forest, saving thousands of orangutans.
But I don’t think there are any permanent victories. Companies don’t want to lose their money and when the focus is off them they will resume their activities.
It’s a battle all the time with them.
Mongabay: How do you stop deforestation before it happens?
Hardi Baktiantoro: Usually we get information from our field staff, local people, the media, and informants that a company is starting to clear an area. We send our team out to document the evidence — whether it is orangutan habitat or primary forest. We make the documentation and then publish it.
Mongabay: And you use technology like GPS and Google Earth to document it?
Hardi Baktiantoro: Of course. It’s a very technical investigation.
We use Google Earth — the ordinary version — to show before and after. It is very helpful.
Mongabay: What are your thoughts on RSPO? Do you think it will ever work?
Hardi Baktiantoro: I think RSPO is just a shield for organized crime. RSPO has criteria but members still cut down the forest and kill the orangutan. For example in November 2007 during the RSPO meeting the IOI Group was still clearing the forest. So it’s like a big joke for me. It is a PR game. RSPO makes Wilmar and Sinar Mas look good but I rescued several orangutan from the Wilmar plantation in 2006 and 2007.
Earlier this year I visited sites where they are still clearing conservation value forest — forest that is home to orangutans.
Mongabay: Is Wilmar clearing peatlands?
Hardi Baktiantoro: Wilmar was not clearing peatlands at the sites we visited in Central Kalimantan but I can’t speak for other areas. It is a big company.
Mongabay: What about sub-contracting? Do you encounter instances where a big company with a good reputation is outsourcing clearing to smaller corporations which are depicted as “small-holders”?
Hardi Baktiantoro: Yes, this is a big problem. As I told you before, it is like organized crime. If we find something wrong in the field the company can easy say, “No that’s not us — they are a contractor. We have a very strict standard but it is not easy to enforce on the because people on the ground are not educated people.”
Mongabay: Some of this forest clearing may be environmentally damaging but is legal from a provincial government standpoint. The companies can say they are not doing anything illegal and perhaps even that the government is encouraging the activity, right?
Hardi Baktiantoro: I don’t care if it is legal or illegal. My opinion is that as long as long as orangutan habitat is being destroyed we have to stop it. It’s very common in Indonesia to legally clear the forest but the definition of who controls the forest can be questionable — it is often disputed.
For example we recently visited a site in Champaka, Central Kalimantan. According to the government, this is degraded land — grassland only. But in fact it is very good forest. Forest with very high conservation value and lots of orangutans and sun bear — so many animals there. But according to the government it is degraded land so it’s legal to clear.
Mongabay: Are there cases of companies protecting “high conservation value” forest that isn’t good forest?
Hardi Baktiantoro: Yes. Once more, this is an example of the PR game. For example several companies designate high conservation value forest on the map but when we checked on the ground they are just setting aside areas that are not suitable for planting. For example, land where there is still conflict with local people or the soil is too rocky for a plantation. So the companies just put up a sign that says conservation forest even if it has few animals or little conservation value. It’s totally “bullshit”.
Mongabay: Companies designate HCV in areas where they don’t have legal rights to the land?
Hardi Baktiantoro: Yes, this is common.
Mongabay: Was there social conflict at site you investigated near Mawas last week (a conservation area home to a large population of orangutans)?
Hardi Baktiantoro: Yes. It is a very sad fact actually. The land price was US$50 per hectare. So it’s very cheap for the company but for the local people this is very valuable land and when the forest is gone they are starving because this is where they get food and rattan, their main source of cash income. The plantation isn’t giving them any jobs.
Mongabay: $50 is a very low price. Did local officials sign off on this deal?
Hardi Baktiantoro: Yes. Local officials were part of it.
Mongabay: Do you see a lot of greenwashing in the palm oil industry?
Hardi Baktiantoro: There is a lot of greenwashing — not only by companies but by environmental groups.
Some environmental groups are not trying to save the forest — they are just covering the government’s failure to protect the forest. Big international groups submit publications that don’t talk about anything wrong in the field but the forest is still coming down and orangutans are being killed.
Mongabay: You’ve said you are not against palm oil per se, only deforestation of orangutan habitat. So if oil palm was established on legitimate degraded lands that didn’t have any social conflict, you wouldn’t have a problem with that?
Hardi Baktiantoro: Yes, I’m not against palm oil, the plantation company, the government or NGOs. I’m against the destruction. Anyone who destroys orangutan habitat and kills orangutans is my enemy.
Mongabay: Do you have any thoughts on REDD?
Hardi Baktiantoro: REDD is very technical to me but as long as it brings benefits to local people for protecting the forest I will support it. But so far I am just waiting to see what will happen. I am waiting to see if the money goes to the local people. I am afraid that the money will be stolen by the government in Jakarta.
Mongabay: How does your outreach program in schools work?
Hardi Baktiantoro: The objective of this program is to develop public support for orangutan protection. We have two targeted groups: (1) schools in Jakarta and Palangkaraya; and (2) schools in villages surrounding the orangutan habitat.
We organize support from school students in Jakarta and Palangkaraya like fund raising and used book distribution for schools in the villages and conservation camps. We tell students in villages about the plight of the orangutan and explain their future if their forests are gone. So far, it runs smoothly. School students in Jakarta collect money and their used books to be distributed in the villages.
Mongabay: How do you work with local communities to protect access to their traditional lands?
Hardi Baktiantoro: We develop a mutualism with local communities on protecting forest. For local people, forest means their livelihood and for COP, forest means for the survival of orangutan. Both of parties has to understand exactly the importance of forest. It is a little bit difficult in the beginning as they questioned our goals: why protecting orangutan, not helping poor people? Then they came to understand that orangutan protection is the most effective ways to protect their daily livelihood from destruction.