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Spring 2014 - Act•ionLine

Rainforest Refugees: Palm Oil Industry Pushes Orangutans Towards Exctinction

The way some palm oil is produced is contributing to massive rainforest destruction, orangutan extinction and climate change. It’s in 50 percent of the goods we use every day, and snuck into snacks of all kinds, so put down that Oreo cookie and pass on that bowl of Frosted Flakes.

by Nicole Rivard

The power to save orangutans from extinction and prevent tropical deforestation and degradation of carbon rich peat lands—a byproduct of palm oil production— is literally in the palm of our hands now.

The El Paso Zoo in Texas has launched a mobile application for smartphones designed to alert people to products that contain palm oil so they can boycott them when shopping for groceries and personal care products, and instead choose palm-oil free options.

“The current palm oil crisis is a consumer-driven problem,” zoo officials said in a statement describing the purpose of the app.

 “We want to tell every American that when you go to the grocery store, you get to make a choice.  If they purchase a product containing palm oil, the way it was grown very likely could have killed orangutans,” said LeAnn Fox, co-founder of Palm Oil Consumers Action and docent at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo.

The name “orangutan” is of Malayan origin and means “person” of the forest. Orangutans live only in the rainforests of Southeast Asia on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, mostly in Indonesia, but also in the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. A 2007 United Nations Environment Program report identified palm oil plantations as the leading cause of rainforest destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia.

As their homes are being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations, orangutans often die from starvation or fires used to clear the forest, or they are killed deliberately by farmers when they steal fruit crops at the forest edge because they have no other food source, according to Dr. Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program SOCP in Indonesia, which is home to approximately 50 orphan orangutans.

Orangutans also become trapped and isolated in any small fragments or stands of just a few trees that remain, making them easier to catch and vulnerable to poachers who want to supply the illegal exotic pet trade.

That’s what happened to Gokong, who arrived at SOCP in February of 2013 after being confiscated from the home of an Indonesian palm oil plantation worker.  He had been snatched from his mother by a fisherman who then sold him as a pet. 

Virtually all of the orangutans confiscated by SOCP are illegal pets, Singleton explained. Part of SOCP’s mission is to release them back in to the wild, which it started doing  in Jantho, near the northern tip of Aceh, the northern province of Sumatra, back in 2011 with the five orangutans, Kis kis, Pibi, Coconut, Sangir and Mongki.

No orangutan mother will give up her offspring without a fight. She will defend her infant to the death, and that is usually what happens—the mothers frequently being clubbed and beaten unconscious with sticks, stones and machetes until the infant can be snatched from their bodies. There are even cases of adult orangutans being burned alive, according to SOCP.

 “If consumers don’t know they have a choice, they will keep doing whatever it is they are doing,” Fox said. “We want to make sure that the American people are aware of what palm oil is, and that they are driving deforestation by purchasing it and don’t know it. I think Americans will do better when they know better.”

Friends of Animals also wants companies to do better and stop using palm oil in their products. About 50 percent of the goods we use every day including food products, cosmetics and detergents, contain palm oil because it has the highest yield of any oil crop and is the cheapest vegetable oil to produce and refine.

But the “Snack Food 20,” the companies the Rainforest Action Network exposed in its report “Conflict Palm Oil,” in the fall of 2013, gross a total of more than $432 billion in revenue annually. Surely they can afford more expensive oil that is not driving orangutans toward extinction.

In December of 2013, Singapore-listed Agribusiness Wilmar International, which supplies palm oil to Unilvever for its Dove soap and Flora margarine, announced that its entire operations worldwide will commit to a ‘no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation’ policy.

While Wilmar’s verbal commitment shows the palm oil industry is admitting it has major issues, and while it sounds like good news for orangutans, actions speak louder than words. FoA doesn’t believe the companies will be able to enforce such policies.

The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm, which was formed in 2004 to address the problems associated with production of palm oil, has failed to step up to the plate. The RSPO’s credibility has been diluted by association with the weak certification standards of the organization. It has been further diluted by the many companies that buy  GreenPalm certificates (which provide monetary support to producers following the RSPO “sustainable palm oil standards”) rather than buying segregated RSPO-certified palm oil (sourced from a known RSPO-certified producer from a plantation not associated with deforestation and not mixed with controversial sources at any point in the supply chain). 

“What they say is that they are buying this conflict palm oil now but in the future they will make sure they buy certified palm oil,” Fox said. “I understand that it can take a few years to switch a supply chain, but if they’ve been members of RSPO eight years and they still aren’t doing a better job at managing their supply chain after eight years, then they are not green…so they shouldn’t be saying that they are.”

 So when you go to the grocery store or buy Girl Scout cookies, it may say on the products’ packaging that they are members of the RSPO, it means absolutely nothing. The only solution to the palm oil crisis is for companies to ban palm oil from their products altogether. The orangutans don’t have time to wait for an industry to clean up its act.

Crisis mode

Singleton fears conflict palm oil production has the potential to wipe out orangutans in his lifetime. When asked if it was an emergency situation for the orangutans, he replied via e-mail, “Very much so.” 

The explosive growth in demand for palm oil has been partly driven by changes in U.S. food labeling laws for trans fats, according to the RAN report.  This has caused U.S. companies to shift to palm oil with its lower trans fat content, despite growing evidence that palm oil’s high saturated fat content is unhealthy.

IUCN’s Red List categorizes the Sumatran orangutan as critically endangered, with the Borneo orangutan classified as endangered. There are fewer than 6,600 Sumatran orangutans, and approximately 54,000 Borneo orangutans. left in the wild. Nearly 20 percent of their remaining habitat is due to be cleared for palm oil plantations.

The Sumatran tiger is also in jeopardy, with estimates of only 300 to 500 left in the wild; as well as the Sumatran elephant (only several thousand estimated to remain in the wild) and the pygmy elephant (with less than 1,500 left.)

“Whether or not we still have viable wild orangutan populations in Sumatra in 20 years largely depends on decisions made in the next few weeks,” Singleton wrote in November. “The same goes for the Sumatran elephant, tiger and rhino.”

Singleton was referring to a land use plan that was proposed in Aceh where the Tripa rainforest is located, under which current protected forests could be rezoned as production forests, including much of the Leuser Ecosystem, a legally protected area in Indonesia.

While the decision had not been made by press time, FoA learned that it doesn’t really matter if activities are legal or not since, “corruption is everywhere,” Singleton says, referring to permits being issued by local Aceh officials without approval at the national level.

“Many permits are illegal and bend the rules, using corruption, but are seldom challenged legally, as the courts are also corrupt and the chances of success are small,” Singleton said.

Palm oil producers choose to destroy rainforests and peat lands because “it’s cheaper and easier as long as you don't get prosecuted,” says Singleton. “And that can be avoided using corruption to falsify environmental impact assessments. Environmental impact assessments simply cut and paste for whatever company needs one with hardly any real visits to the actual site.”

No rainforest is safe

Although most of the world’s palm oil is produced in Southeast Asia, now strong economic incentives are encouraging agribusiness to lease land in the African tropical forest zone. In the fall of 2013, Joshua Linder, Ph.D, Department of Sociology and Anthropology at James Madison University, wrote an article for the journal African Primates focusing on the impacts of palm oil expansion in Africa by a controversial development in Cameroon by American agribusiness company Herakles Farms.

“Systemic line transect surveys of the Herakles Farm plantation area conducted by Cameroonian and German university researchers in 2013 found evidence for the presence of all eight diurnal primate species that are also found in the adjacent Korup National Park,” Linder wrote. “The synergistic effects of commercial bush meat hunting with large-scale clearing of forest for palm oil production may overwhelm conservation efforts to forestall primate extinctions in the African forest zone in the coming decades.”

Like New York-based Herakles Farms causing destruction in Africa, a lot of the companies destroying Indonesia are not Indonesian.

“Cargill is a huge American company and among the biggest producers and sellers of palm oil globally,” Singleton said.

 “It is Americans and Europeans and Australians doing most of the damage here. But they are good at hiding behind shell companies. American consumers should be asking their own government, ‘What are you doing about this fact?’”

FoA couldn’t agree more. It’s time for consumers, companies and the government to close our borders to palm oil.

Act•ionLine Spring 2014

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