In an unlikely—and perhaps tenuous—alliance, conservationists and the palm oil industry met this week to draw up plans to save Asia’s last great ape, the orangutan. As if to underscore the colloquium’s importance, delegates on arriving in the Malaysian State of Sabah found the capital covered in a thick and strange fog caused by the burning of rainforests and peat lands in neighboring Kalimantan.
After two days of intensive meetings the colloquium adopted a resolution which included the acquisition of land for creating wildlife buffer zones of at least 100 meters along all major rivers, in addition to corridors for connecting forests. Researchers said such corridors were essential if orangutans were to have a future in Sabah.
Young orangutan in Sabah. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
“This has to be the way the way forward to restore or allow reversion of forests along riverbanks,” John Payne with WWF-Malaysia said.
If the corridors, both connecting forests and alongside rivers, are implemented this will prove a huge success for conservationists and a vital step forward in saving the last remaining—and still declining—populations of orangutans in Malaysia. Such action would also represent a seismic shift in the palm oil industry’s quest to repair a long-battered reputation due to large-scale deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Sponsored by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), the Bornean Conservation Trust, and the local conservation organization HUTAN, the meeting provided a rare venue for government officials to have drinks with primatologists, and palm oil entrepreneurs to share a meal with conservationists.
The call for conservationists and palm oil industry to work together
At times frustrations between the palm oil industry and environmentalists rose to the surface as when a member of Greenpeace SEAsia told the crowd that neither his organization nor he, himself, could approve of any deforestation. However, most of the meeting was conciliatory as members from all sides strove to find common ground.
Palm oil plantation in Malaysia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
“This colloquium throws a challenge to all concerned stakeholders in the palm oil industry, primatologists and ecologists included, on finding ways to develop the palm oil industry in a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship with the environment,” the chairman of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), Dato’ Lee Yeow Chor, told the audience.
“I’d like to call for companies and NGOs and palm oil to get close together, get off your high horses about what should not be done […] but try to find some middle ground for where we can constructively move forward,” said Erik Meijaard with the Nature Conservancy, Indonesia. Meijaard works with a population of orangutans that has continued to survive despite part of the habitat being a paper plantation
Wildlife veterinarian and researcher, Marc Ancrenaz led the call for cooperation: “It’s high time to stop polarizing this debate. The oil palm industry is going to stay, there’s no point in fighting against development.” He added “we need to look for a solution” to save orangutans.
Orangutans caught in a sea of plantations
Ancrenaz and the local organization HUTAN, of which he is a co-founder, was one of the major driving forces behind the meeting. Recent aerial surveys, funded in part by the palm oil industry, discovered orangutans living in small forest patches hemmed in on all sides by plantations. According to Ancrenaz, they are probably transient individuals looking for new territory.
Orangutans face many hazards in oil palm plantations. Workers have been known to kill the apes because they can damage the pricey crop, as well orangutans may starve to death due to lack of food sources.
Orangutans in Kalimantan. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
“Oil palm plantations looks like forest, seem like forest, but they are not forest,” Ancrenaz told the delegation. Studies have shown that biodiversity falls by 80 percent when forest is converted into oil palm plantation. The industry currently covers 1.4 million hectares of Sabah alone, over 18 percent of the state’s total land.
Chairman of MPOC, Dato’ Lee Yeow Chor, agreed that orangutans need help. “There is a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the State Government and the Malaysian palm oil industry to find the ideal balance in meeting and achieving the needs of the people while ensuring healthy co-existence with the orangutans,” he said.
A new palm oil industry?
During the colloquium oil palm delegates appeared to vacillate between conciliatory acknowledgement of environmental problems and passionately defending their industry from any criticism.
Tan Sri Bernard Dompok, the Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities, called allegations by NGOs “vastly unfounded”, saying that “palm oil is […] singled out as one of the primary causes of deforestation, depletion of biodiversity, and the displacement of endangered species such as the orangutan […] I wish to stress that all these allegations are unjustified”.
However, a study in Conservation Letters found that 55-59 percent of palm oil plantations in Malaysia built between 1990 and 2009 occurred on forested land. In all it has been estimated that in Sabah alone forest cover declined by nearly 90 percent from 1975-1995, likely due to both logging and oil palm.
Palm oil plantation and rainforest in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Other industry speakers touted the benefits of palm oil. As the world’s highest yielding oil crop, oil palm has yields that vastly outperform corn, soy, or rapeseed, providing more food per hectare by ten to twenty times as much. It also has a better carbon balance than rapeseed or soy, but only if not grown over forests or peat land.
The CEO of MPOC, Tan Sri Datuk Dr. Yusof Basiron argued that oil palm was responsible for poverty alleviation in the region. However, one local conservationist said that plantation workers—who are largely immigrant Indonesians in Sabah—are paid so little they are practically forced to hunt in the forests for meat. Although meant for deer their snares sometimes catch and mortally wound Bornean elephants, sunbears, and even the elusive Bornean rhino, one of the most endangered mammals in the world.
There is no doubt, however, that the oil palm industry has brought a lot of revenue to the region. In 2008 oil palm brought in 64.8 billion RM in exports (around 18.7 billion US dollars) for all of Malaysia and in Sabah a sizeable portion of the state’s revenue comes from taxes levied on oil palm plantations.
Despite the bullish arguments from some in the palm oil industry, many industry speakers appeared wearied by the constant attacks from environmental organizations for deforestation, biodiversity loss, and carbon emissions.
“I’m not claiming any success here,” Basiron said of whether or not palm oil industry should be called ‘responsible’ or ‘sustainably managed’, adding that “this is something we can debate”. Regarding deforestation, Basiron said the palm oil industry “can take some of the blame, but not all of it.”
But Basiron added palm oil was necessary to feed the world, saying “it’s not our fault the population is increasing.” He said there was pressure to produce even more palm oil for global consumption: approximately 10 percent of palm oil is used for nonfood products, such as soaps and cosmetics.
Oil palm seed. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
MPOC Chairman Chor admitted that “biodiversity and wildlife protection has been one issue where the oil palm industry finds itself in unfamiliar territory; after all we are planters, who do what we do best—to increase yield while adhering to the regulations of the country,”
The increasing pressure on the oil palm industry to address environmental issues appeared to be having an effect, as the industry’s spokespeople stated repeatedly that they were open to implementing new conservation measures and supporting, including with financial backing, new initiatives.
“The industry wants to be part of the efforts that not only show concern for the environment, but in fact actually take an active part in its conservation,” Chor said.
Such criticism has only become louder recently. This year advertisements in England which touted palm oil as ‘sustainable’ were banned by British Advertising Standards Association for making misleading claims. Several western companies have begun dropping palm oil altogether, including LUSH cosmetics and Cadbury New Zealand. But perhaps the biggest move came from the World Bank when it suspended lending to palm oil companies last month due to concerns about environmental and social issues.
These many recent actions may be one reason why the palm oil industry was keen to say it was fully behind any efforts to aid the orangutan, even if it meant losing significant chunks of land by government acquisition.
“I will support the effort to provide a corridor, even to acquire land compulsorily because this is in order to make our agriculture and tourism industry sustainable,” Dompock, the Minister of the Plantation Industry and Commodities, pledged to members of the press.
A new day?
Not everyone was convinced by the palm oil industry’s speeches.
“My very cynical view of the whole event is another publicity stunt for MPOC [the Malaysian Palm Oil Council],” one anonymous conservationist said before the meeting commenced. “I just really doubt that there’s an ounce of sincerity in the organization”.
Orangutan in Borneo. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
They were not alone: many expressed concern that the palm oil industry would say one thing, but do another. In fact, a lot of participants invited from the palm oil industry were no-shows and most of those that did appear ducked out early, missing the sessions where detailed plans were drawn up. The ones that stayed, however, were instrumental in writing the document agreed on by the entire assembly.
Despite the absence of many in the industry, locally the meeting was seen as a success before it even finished. On the morning of the second day, the Borneo Post published an article that covered the front page announcing that government officials were supporting the acquisition of land for wildlife corridors. That afternoon, following hours of deliberation, Datuk Masidi Manjun, Minister of Tourism, Culture, and Environment, accepted the assembly’s recommendations and promised to move quickly on them.
By the meeting’s end the fog had lifted around Sabah allowing one to see, for the first time, the forested hills cradling the capital. At the same time, participants spoke of feeling cautious optimism that a new day was dawning for conservation efforts in South East Asia.
Only time will tell if the palm oil industry will stand by its pledges and give the plans to create wildlife corridors their full backing, allowing local government agencies to go ahead without obstruction. If they do, the meeting could prove the beginning of a new and more cordial relationship between conservationists and the palm oil industry, if not then it will be another speech-filled assembly where pledges and promises ultimately fall flat.
(09/24/2009) With the world facing a variety of crises: climate change, food shortages, extreme poverty, and biodiversity loss, researchers are looking at ways to address more than one issue at once by revolutionizing sectors of society. One of the ideas is a transformation of agricultural practices from intensive chemical-dependent crops to mixing agriculture and forest, while relying on organic methods. The latter is known as agroforestry or land sharing—balancing the crop yields with biodiversity. Shonil Bhagwat, Director of MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management at the School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford, believes this philosophy could help the world tackle some of its biggest problems.
(09/24/2009) Of the world’s two species of orangutan, a great ape that shares 96 percent of man’s genetic makeup, the Sumatran orangutan is considerably more endangered than its cousin in Borneo. Today there are believed to be fewer than 7,000 Sumatran orangutans in the wild, a consequence of the wildlife trade, hunting, and accelerating destruction of their native forest habitat by loggers, small-scale farmers, and agribusiness. Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra is one of the last strongholds for the species, serving as a refuge among paper pulp concessions and rubber and oil palm plantations. While orangutans are relatively well protected in areas around tourist centers, they are affected by poorly regulated interactions with tourists, which have increased the risk of disease and resulted in high mortality rates among infants near tourist centers like Bukit Lawang. Further, orangutans that range outside the park or live in remote areas or on its margins face conflicts with developers, including loggers, who may or may not know about the existence of the park, and plantation workers, who may kill any orangutans they encounter in the fields. Working to improve the fate of orangutans that find their way into plantations and unprotected community areas is the Orangutan Information Center (OIC), a local NGO that collaborates with the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS).
(09/09/2009) Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), a group that regulates advertisements, has again banned “misleading” ads by the palm oil industry, reports the Guardian. ASA ruled that a campaign run by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) makes dubious claims, including that palm oil is the “only product able to sustainably and efficiently meet a larger portion of the world’s increasing demand for oil crop-based consumer goods, foodstuffs and biofuels.” The ad said criticism over “rampant deforestation and unsound environmental practices” were part of “protectionist agendas” not based on scientific fact. ASA held the ad breached several of its advertising standards codes, including “substantiation,” “truthfulness,” and “environmental claims.” In rebuking the MPOC, the ASA said that the merits of new eco-certification scheme promoted by the palm oil industry is “still the subject of debate” and that the ad’s attacks on detractors implied that all criticisms of the palm oil industry “were without a valid or scientific basis.”
(09/09/2009) The World Bank has agreed to suspend International Finance Corporation (IFC) funding of the oil palm sector pending the development of safeguards to ensure that lending doesn’t cause social or environmental harm, according to a letter by World Bank President Robert Zoellick to NGOs. A recent internal audit found that IFC funding of the Wilmar Group, a plantation developer, violated the IFC’s own procedures, allowing commercial concerns to trump environmental and social standards. The findings were championed by environmental and indigenous rights’ groups who have criticized World Bank support for industrial oil palm development which they say has driven large-scale destruction of forests in Indonesia, boosting greenhouse gas emissions, endangering rare and charismatic species of wildlife, including the orangutan, and displacing forest communities.
(09/05/2009) The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) has successfully released 46 orangutans back into the wild. The orangutans had been rescued from forest fragments and housed for months at the Nyaru Menteng Rescue and Reintroduction Project in Central Kalimantan until suitable — and secure — habitat was located. The release site is a section of rainforest in the upper Barito region of Central Kalimantan, within the Heart of Borneo.
(08/24/2009) At least 20,000 orangutans have been killed or captured for the illegal pet trade in the past ten years in Indonesia without a single prosecution, according to a report published by Nature Alert and the Centre for Orangutan Protection, groups that campaign on behalf of orangutans.
(08/20/2009) A baby orangutan ambles across the grass at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation’s Nyaru Menteng rehabilitation center in Central Kalimantan, in the heart of Indonesian Borneo. The ape pauses, picks up a stick and makes his way over to a plastic log, lined with small holes. Breaking the stick in two, he pokes one end into a hole in an effort to extract honey that has been deposited by a conservation worker. His expression shows the tool’s use has been fruitful. But he is not alone. To his right another orangutan has turned half a coconut shell into a helmet, two others wrestle on the lawn, and another youngster scales a papaya tree. There are dozens of orangutans, all of which are about the same age. Just outside the compound, dozens of younger orangutans are getting climbing lessons from the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS) staff, while still younger orangutans are being fed milk from bottles in a nearby nursery. Still more orangutans—teenagers and adults—can be found on “Orangutan Island” beyond the center’s main grounds. Meanwhile several recently wild orangutans sit in cages. This is a waiting game. BOS hopes to eventually release all of these orangutans back into their natural habitat—the majestic rainforests and swampy peatlands of Central Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. But for many, this is a fate that may never be realized.
(08/18/2009) A coalition of indigenous rights’ organizations and green groups is calling on the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) to suspend lending to oil palm plantation developers over revelations by its own internal auditors that the loan-making entity failed to follow its own procedures for protecting against social and environmental abuses.
(08/17/2009) Cadbury New Zealand, responding to widespread consumer protests, will stop adding palm oil to its milk chocolate products, reports the New Zealand Herald. The candy-maker substituted palm oil and other vegetable fat for cocoa butter earlier this year. The company cited cost savings for the decision, but the move triggered outcry from environmental groups who blame palm oil production for destruction of rainforests across Indonesia and Malaysia, key habitat for orangutans and other endangered species. Concerns that Cadbury chocolate could be imperiling orangutans led the Auckland Zoo and others to ban Cadbury products. Meanwhile consumers swamped the company with letters and petitions protesting its use of palm oil.
(08/12/2009) A new report from published by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) highlights the benefits — and controversies — of large-scale expansion of oil palm agriculture in Southeast Asia. The review, titled “The impacts and opportunities of oil palm in Southeast Asia: What do we know and what do we need to know?”, notes that while oil palm is a highly productive and profitable crop, there are serious concerns about its environmental and social impact when established on disputed land or in place of tropical forests and peatlands.
(08/10/2009) LUSH Cosmetics, a leading cosmetics-maker, will no longer use palm oil due to environmental concerns over its production. LUSH, which is now selling a palm oil-free soap, has launched a two-pronged campaign to make consumers aware of the impacts of palm cultivation on tropical forests and encourage other consumer-products companies, including Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Nestle, to reformulate their products using alternatives to palm oil.
(08/06/2009) A new study finds oil palm plantations store less carbon than previously believed, suggesting that palm oil produced through the conversion of tropical forests carries a substantial carbon debt.
(07/22/2009) Indonesian palm oil producers are eying forest conservation projects as a way to supplement earnings via the nascent carbon market, reports Reuters.
(07/15/2009) China-based producers and users of palm oil said they will provide more support for sustainable palm oil, reports WWF. The move could boost efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of the world’s most productive oilseed.
(07/12/2009) Auckland Zoo has pulled Cadbury chocolates from its shops and restaurants following the candy maker’s decision to start adding palm oil to its chocolates, reports the Sunday Star Times. The zoo is also removing other products that contain palm oil, due to concerns that its production is driving rainforest destruction across Southeast Asia, putting orangutans and other species at risk. Cadbury said it made the change to palm oil for economic reasons. Palm oil, described as “vegetable fat” on its packaging, is cheaper than cocoa butter.
(07/09/2009) A coalition of environmental groups stepped up efforts to stop Astra Agro Lestari (AAL), an Indonesian palm oil company, from continuing to clear orangutan habitat in Aceh province, Indonesia.
(07/08/2009) Consumer apathy towards eco-certified palm oil have undermined efforts to improve the environmental performance of the industry, a top industry official told Reuters.
(06/18/2009) Dr. Yusof Basiron, CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, the government-backed marketing arm of the Malaysian palm oil industry, claims on his blog that endangered orangutans benefit from living in proximity to oil palm plantations. Environmentalists scoff at the notion, maintaining that oil palm expansion is one of the greatest threats to orangutans.
(06/04/2009) Indonesia’s decision earlier this year to allow conversion of up to 2 million hectares of peatlands for oil palm plantations is “a monumental mistake” for the country’s long-term economic prosperity and sustainability, argues an editorial published in the June issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
(06/01/2009) 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.
(05/16/2009) The population of orangutans in Indonesia’s Kutai National Park has plunged by 90 percent in the past five years due to large-scale deforestation promoted by local authorities, reports The Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP), an Indonesian environmental group.
(05/13/2009) Lack of interest in eco-certified palm oil among buyers threatens to undermine efforts to improve the environmental performance of the industry, reports the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
(04/25/2009) Environmentalists have thwarted plans to establish an oil palm plantation in the Tanoe forest wetlands of southern Cote d’ Ivoire (Ivory Coast), reports AFP.
(03/30/2009) Reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD) is increasingly seen as a compelling way to conserve tropical forests while simultaneously helping mitigate climate change, preserving biodiversity, and providing sustainable livelihoods for rural people. But to become a reality REDD still faces a number of challenges, not least of which is economic competition from other forms of land use. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the biggest competitor is likely oil palm, which is presently one of the most profitable forms of land use. Oil palm is also spreading to other tropical forest areas including the Brazilian Amazon.