Palm Oil or Orang-utans? We Must Soon Decide Which we Prefer

May 2, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

One of mankind’s closest relatives, the Orang-utan has long been a centre of fascination amongst scientists and the zoologists. They share 97% of the same DNA as humans and show a striking similarity to the emotion expressed by the human race. The Orang-utan, meaning ‘Person of the Forest’ in Malay, displays a vibrant human-like personality with emotions ranging from envy and rage, to serene displays of affection and mischievous activity.

However, it is estimated that in the last decade the population of Orang-utans has been reduced by over 50%. Once to be found throughout south-east Asia in their hundreds of thousands, nowadays the islands of Borneo and Sumatra hold the meagre 50,000 Orang-utans left in the wild.

The decline in the population of the Orang-utan is occurring through the increased human activity in the area. Permitted and illegal logging, the prohibited animal trade and the spread of palm oil plantations have all been cited as being the main reason for the disappearance of the endangered mammal.

The growing demand for palm oil (a type of vegetable oil) has resulted in virgin forests being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. Indonesia has 6 million hectares of plantations and is set to create another 4 million by 2015. The oil can be found in 10% of supermarket products including bread, chocolate, detergents, crisps and makeup. The oil is also used heavily within the growing biodiesel industry. This is only set to grow as our consumption of palm oil increases. Demand is set to double by 2030 and triple by 2050.

When destroying the habitat of the Orang-utan to accommodate our consumer needs, plantation workers inevitably come into contact with the inhabitants sooner or later. Witnesses to forest-clearing exercises are candid about the abhorrent actions they have seen carried out:

“We cut down the tree where the female was sitting and she fell to the ground. We thought she might already have died but when we got close she stood up and tried to ‘attack’ us. We cut off her hands with our knives. She died.”

‘When we saw the big male approaching our camp we were afraid. So we quickly ran over to him and doused him with petrol and set him on fire.”

“When the team arrived they saw an adult female lying on the ground not far from a newly cut down tree. As they approached they noticed that she was not tied and concluded she must have been beaten unconscious by the workers. Nothing ever really prepares you for blood or for death. This hardened rescue team who have seen newly burned corpses, 5-day-old decomposed bodies, orang-utans having been beaten to death or buried alive, had to step back from what lay in front of them. The female was still alive but only barely. She was covered in blood from several deep slashes from sharp machetes. One of her hands had almost been cut off, and was only held on by a little muscle and skin on the side. The other was likewise almost cut off but at the wrist. The machete had cut through skin, tendons and bone in one swift cut. Now the female was lying there in front of their eyes slowly bleeding to death.”

(Quotes from – Caution: Website contains distressing images)

So what can be done to help?

It may seem that the answer is a complete boycott of palm oil products. Speaking to the national press the biologist Dr Wilcove argues that this is not the answer. He believes that there should be greater environmental awareness and education amongst palm oil workers. The exportation of palm oil is of great economic importance to Indonesia and is of a direct financial benefit to health and social care within the country:

‘In the context of its tremendous economic importance, it must be recognised that the notion of boycotting palm oil is impractical and unrealistic. It is simply not an approach that will work. The focus of the new oil palm establishment should be on degraded and cultivated lands like grasslands and rubber plantations’.

As consumers we have a responsibility to ensure that the palm oil products we buy are produced ethically. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was set up to urge businesses to agree to minimum standards that guarantee the palm oil they use in their products comes from non-destructive sources. For palm oil to meet the standards of ‘non-destructiveness’ it must:

* Use land that has already been degraded for production of palm oil.
* Guarantee that no forest of conservational status has been cleared for the plantation
* Show consideration towards the local villagers land rights
* Sustain the corridors of movement between forests to allow animals to move freely
* Eradicate ‘bonuses’ amongst plantation workers for killing an Orang-utan.

For further reading on the subject, and the official statement that give the criteria of sustainable palm oil, see

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This post was written by Chris Bath

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