- Oil palm production in Borneo is booming, resulting in major deforestation and putting Critically Endangered orangutans at risk. But the industry and conservationists have historically not worked well together to solve the problem.
- In an attempt at a solution, Orangutan Foundation International and PT SMART — Indonesia’s largest oil palm group — have joined forces to teach administrators, management and workers to value and protect orangutans.
- PT SMART and PT Lontar Papyrus, a major wood pulp supplier, have agreed to a Zero Tolerance/No Kill policy for orangutans and other protected species, and OFI is running an ongoing training program to initiate employees to the initiative.
The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is quite an appealing crop to growers, investors and consumers. It produces not just one but two types of oil, with a vast number of uses ranging from cooking to biofuels. In the right setting, it is by far the most efficient oil crop in terms of yield and production cost, outperforming canola, sunflower and other popular oils by three to five times per hectare. Palm oil is also the cheapest oil on the market, which is helping fuel the world’s insatiable appetite for it.
And so, global oil palm production continues to boom, especially in Indonesia where it is currently a $20 billion industry, producing the majority of the world’s supply — the country exported 30.9 million tons of palm oil in 2015, with 3.5 million tons alone coming from Indonesian Borneo.
But that economic boon has proved to be a bane for tropical forests and wildlife. The rush to industrialized agriculture has led to mass deforestation largely through slash and burn land clearing, a practice closely tied to the record-setting uncontrollable forest fires that raged through Indonesia last year.
Add to that problem those of unsustainable management practices and poor transparency, and the result is an industry often painted by critics as an environmental super villain.
At the heart of accusations against palm oil producers is the devastating impact the business has had on one of the world’s most beloved of charismatic megafauna: the orangutan.
Palm oil and orangutans don’t mix… or can they?
The orangutan is only found on two islands in the world: Sumatra and Borneo. Unfortunately for the orangutans, these two islands also happen to be at the epicenter of Indonesia’s principal oil palm concessions.
Today, both the Sumatran species (Pongo abelii) and the Bornean species (Pongo pygmaeus) are listed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Sumatra saw the first oil palm boom, but when developable land became scarce there, plantations expanded onto Borneo, where forests were quickly lost. More than 50 percent of oil palm expansion in Borneo between 1990 and 2006 was facilitated via the destruction of natural forest, causing a habitat loss for the endemic Bornean orangutan of approximately 3,122 square kilometers (1,205 square miles) annually.
As oil palm production continues growing, embattled conservationists have struggled to find viable strategies for saving orangutans and their habitat, ranging from litigation and legislation; to animal rescue, rehabilitation and release; and urgent appeals to the global media and the court of public opinion.
Another approach employed in recent years is to put enmity aside, and for industry and conservationists to find ways in which they can work together to protect critical wildlife habitat and orangutans without hampering agroindustry production and economic gain.
Teaching people and industry to care
Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas first arrived on the island of Borneo in 1971, before oil palm plantations began to take over the island’s peatlands. She founded Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) in 1986, a non-profit group dedicated to the conservation of orangutans in Kalimantan — Indonesia’s portion of Borneo.
Since then, she has witnessed first-hand, and sometimes fought tooth and claw, against the rapid evolution of industrial agriculture on the island. Galdikas has a strict view regarding sustainability: if it causes deforestation, it is not sustainable. She therefore considers the much celebrated conservation solutions offered by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to be a form of greenwashing.
Her stance has not, however, prevented her from taking a bold step that some other conservationists have resisted: she and her OFI team have joined forces with the biggest palm oil producer in the country to try to mitigate some of the industry’s negative impacts on orangutans.
In 2011, the Indonesian government brokered an agreement between OFI and palm oil producer PT SMART (Sinar Mas Agri-Resources and Technology), and PT Lontar Papyrus, a major wood pulp supplier.
Both companies agreed to a Zero Tolerance/No Kill policy for orangutans and other protected species, and to an OFI-run training program to initiate employees to the new plan. PT SMART is a subsidiary of Singapore-based Golden Agri-Resources Ltd. (GAR), the largest oil palm group in Indonesia — with over 460,000 acres of plantation in the country — and the second largest oil palm producer in the world.
The Indonesian training program got underway in 2012 when OFI launched a series of workshops specifically designed for PT SMART palm oil employees, as well as for pulp and paper workers. Galdikas and her OFI team taught PT SMART managers and administrators to value orangutans, and offered up ecologically-sound wildlife responses for when workers encounter animals in the field. These techniques were then disseminated via the managerial team to rank-and-file PT SMART employees.
Galdikas views the agreement and her Zero Tolerance/No Kill Policy training program as an important step towards reducing human-wildlife conflict on plantations — an especially critical step if agro-business and conservationists are to learn how to successfully coexist.
Renie Djojoasmaro heads up the OFI Jakarta office, and is one of the biodiversity trainers for the ongoing four-day program. She says that working with PT SMART administrators and managers who had no conservation experience changed her perceptions of the oil palm industry in a good way.
“We should not regard those [employees], including the company they work for, as our enemy,” said Djojoasmoro. “They should be approached, and be educated so that they will help protect orangutans and other wild animals.”
She noted that such programs can’t possibly succeed without the full cooperation of agribusiness companies, and conceded that some firms still remain unwilling to cooperate.
Golden Agri-Resources Ltd. (GAR), however, asserts to being a progressive company and on board with conservation goals. It claims to have had a zero burn policy in place for all its concessions since 1997, and to have allowed no development on peatlands since 2010. The company is also supportive of Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s April 14, 2016 decree placing a moratorium on new oil palm and mining concessions.
Some environmental groups are skeptical about GAR’s claims regarding zero burn policies, as well as the recent decree, and they note that weak government monitoring and enforcement has plagued the oil palm industry since its inception.
Despite these continuing problems, Dr. Galdikas recently tweeted that she is: “proud of progress PT SMART has made in protecting orangutans in their plantations. OFI trained hundreds of managers in this implementation.”
Workers respond with enthusiasm
Mongabay conducted email interviews with some of the PT SMART employees who completed the OFI Zero Tolerance/No Kill Policy training. Significantly, for many of those queried, their job at PT SMART was also their first ever, and most were long term employees who had stayed with the company for more than a decade.
Together, these facts underscore a simple truth that conservationists focused solely on orangutan preservation sometimes miss: the palm oil industry — while it is undeniably destroying vast tracts of forest, endangering wildlife, and causing devastating forest fires — has also provided millions of jobs to people, many of whom previously were impoverished in a struggling country.
By 2011, an estimated 25 million people were living off of oil palm cultivation in Indonesia alone, and it continues to be an industry that is raising the nation’s standard of living. So does that mean that the effort to save orangutans must forever be viewed as a losing battle between habitat preservation and human livelihoods? Not necessarily.
For Farry Surya, the PT SMART Regional Coordinator for Central Kalimantan 2, the OFI training program did change things. Originally from the coastal capital of Manado in North Sulawesi, he has been with the company for 22 years, and had no previous job. He said that before the training, he thought of orangutans as he did “other animals: not too important. Control them if they cause nuisance.” However, since the training he now understands that orangutans must be protected. He believes that the training helped him and other trainees to value the animals.
Mr. Heriyanto, the estate manager of an oil palm concession in Tengkawang, and previously a lecturer at Jember University in East Java, has been with PT SMART for 18 years. He, like Surya and other Indonesians, principally knew orangutans as animals that come into conflict with communities and cause trouble for farmers. The training helped him understand the key role orangutans play within ecosystems.
During some training sessions, PT SMART workers visited OFI’s Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park, where they could see orangutans living in the wild. Galdikas says that this is often an incredibly moving experience for oil palm employees, and can help to give them a much more positive view of the animals.
However, plantation workers are just like the rest of us: they may truly care about orangutans, the environment, and the forests of their country, but they also have families to support — and families usually come first.
If orangutans and a sufficient portion of their habitat are to survive, then these diverging realities must somehow be reconciled.
Finding a balance
In 2011, GAR released a video showing two rehabilitated orangutans being released into the wild, with PT SMART employees and OFI team members present, including Dr. Galdikas. It was a PR moment and “photo op” to be sure, but the event also offered good press for a much maligned industry not then known for working side-by-side with conservationists.
“Conservation is expensive. Maintaining the forest, releasing the orangutans, taking care of them… is quite costly, and the government’s funds are limited,” declared Zulkifli Hasan, the Indonesian Minister of Forestry Conservation at the time. “That is why cooperation [between government, conservationists, the private sector and local people] is so important.”
OFI, supported by PT SMART funding, has rescued and released more orangutans since then, but despite these small victories, the basic conundrum remains: how can humans preserve biodiversity and habitat in a world where the human population and its living standards are both rising, and where consumer demand seems unquenchable?
Palm oil exports from Indonesia are set to expand from 32.5 to 40 million metric tons by 2020, according to the Wall Street Journal. And since it seems likely that nothing is standing in the way of that major expansion, conservation organizations like OFI will have their work cut out for them.
The ideal solution for tropical forests would be for decision makers to find a way to accommodate increased oil palm production while minimally degrading forest habitat — possibly by intensifying crop yields on existing concessions; or encouraging conversion of non-forested lands such as old farmland or invasive Imperata grass fields. Another part of that solution is making conservation more profitable, through ecotourism, and through increased investment by industry.
But initiatives such as the Zero Tolerance/No Kill Policy training program have provided a start — creating a much-needed forum, and a new mindset, in which the Indonesian people can begin to embrace both orangutan conservation and improved livelihood as mutually acceptable and worthwhile goals.
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