Palm oil industry killing orangutans
Femke van den Bos, Jakarta
It will only take up to two or three years of rain forest destruction if the current rate continues to determine the fate of the orangutan. The populations of orangutans that will still exist in 2008 will not be viable anymore and the damage done will be irreversible. The genetic pool of the orangutan will be too small to ensure the survival of the species.
Palm oil is a widely used vegetable oil that you can find in many products, like soap, chocolate, toothpaste, chips and even biofuel.
It is an important export product for Indonesia, with China, India and the European Union being the biggest consumers.
Originally, oil palms came from West Africa, but they can flourish wherever heat and rainfall are abundant. Nowadays, Indonesia and Malaysia are the largest producers of palm oil in the world, with Sumatra and Borneo being the main producing islands.
Unfortunately, these islands are also home to the orangutans (which aren't found elsewhere on the planet) and thousands of other animal and plant species. Recently, a whole new range of species was discovered by scientists in Kalimantan, all of which are also now threatened with extinction.
Indonesia is facing the highest rate of tropical rain forest loss in the world: Borneo, which is divided between Malaysia and Indonesia, has lost half its forest cover, while Sumatra has lost 70 percent. Of the original orangutan habitat 90 percent has disappeared.
In the last decade, the deforestation rate has accelerated to two million hectares of forest each year. According to a World Bank report, oil palm plantations are the major cause of this acceleration.
There are millions of hectares of already degraded land available and perfectly suitable for oil palm plantations in Indonesia. But instead of using these areas, companies prefer to cut down rain forests and earn quick money selling the wood.
A common phenomenon is for companies to apply for permits to cut forests for the establishment of economically feasible plantations (the sole reason they receive the permit). These firms then disappear after the land has been cleared. The land is left behind has no use at all, and the firms move on to cut new forest for "new oil palm plantations".
After cutting the forests, palm oil companies use uncontrolled burning to clear the land. In 1997-1998, a devastating fire killed one third of Borneo's orangutan population, and destroyed five million hectares of forest. As their habitat shrinks, orangutans are forced out of the forests onto the plantations in search of food.
Plantation workers often see them as pests and abuse or kill them. Many of them are shot, beaten, cut with machetes, burned or even buried alive. The orangutan rescue centers are overcrowded with displaced and abused orangutans.
The government was planning to grand concessions for a huge deforestation project involving 1.8 million hectares on the border between Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo.
The cleared land was supposed to be used for palm oil plantations, but research showed that only 10 percent is suitable for oil palms; the rest of the land was either too high or too steep to grow the palms. The minister of agriculture, Anton Apriyantono, announced on May 7th that the government would go ahead with the mega-plantation project, but only on 180,000 hectares. The Heart of Borneo (a 22 million hectare joint conservation project involving Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia) would be left undisturbed. This is a small victory for environmentalists!
But the clearing of 180,000 hectares of primary forest and other future projects involving the clearing of forests will still have a disastrous impact not only on orangutans and other wildlife, but also the indigenous people.
The land for plantations is often forcibly taken from the people who traditionally owned it and violent conflicts are not uncommon in the palm oil industry.
In many plantations, employees have to contend with low wages and appalling living conditions. The palm oil industry may create jobs and generate export revenue; it can also trap entire communities in poverty.
Boycotting palm oil is not the answer, but demanding that it is sourced from sustainable plantations is. This means no more high value conservation areas will be cleaned, traditional land rights of local communities will be respected, fire won't be used to clear land, no bonuses will be offered for the killing of orangutans, and corridors will be retained to connect remaining forests to allow free movement of animals.
Please help us persuade the Indonesian government to stop all further forest conversion and respect the customary rights of the local people. Hopefully we will be able to change the future.
The writer is a veterinary curator with Proanimalia at Tegal Alur wildlife rescue center.
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