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Palm oil industry pledges wildlife corridors to save orangutans

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.

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