Endangered Orangutans Gain From Eco-Friendly Shifts in Palm Oil Market

Oil palm plantations are a major threat to orangutans, but new initiatives for deforestation-free palm oil may help save them.
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Two orangutans spend time in the forest in Borneo, Indonesia.

Orangutans are endangered. Now, they're also at the epicenter of a quiet revolution, a transformation taking place on our grocery store shelves, as one company after another promises to switch to palm oil from "deforestation-free" sources.

Orangutans face many obstacles, from commercial logging and mining to deforestation for pulp and paper. But Michelle Desilets, executive director of the Orangutan Land Trust, says that the "the conversion of forest for oil palm is the single greatest threat to [their] survival in the wild" in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea.

During the past 11 months, however, more than a dozen major producers, traders, and consumers of palm oil have pledged to produce, buy, or sell only deforestation-free palm oil.

Some 60 percent of the global palm oil trade (about 50 million tons, and increasing) is covered by these new forest-friendly palm oil policies.

"We're seeing the beginning of a bunch of dominos that are going to fall, and it's going to put a lot of pressure on companies that don't have zero deforestation commitments," says Rhett Butler, founder of Mongabay.com, who follows these issues closely.

Palm oil is in thousands of household items, from personal care products like shampoo and cosmetics to detergents and processed foods. It's in perhaps half the packaged products on our supermarket shelves.

About 85 percent of the world's palm oil comes from plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, where huge tracts of rain forest are cleared and given over to production of the oil.

An assessment by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)—an organization of producers, traders, consumer goods manufacturers, investors, and non-governmental organizations formed in 2004 to develop global standards for sustainable palm oil—showed that from 1990 to 2010, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea converted 8.7 million acres of forest to oil palm plantations. That's an area about twice the size of New Jersey.

Palm oil is coveted for many reasons. It's versatile and has a longer shelf life than other vegetable oils. The fruit yields palm oil (from the pulp) and palm kernel oil (extracted from the seed), as well as a host of chemical derivatives.

It's also cheaper and more efficient to grow than other oilseed crops. It has higher yields because the fruit contains 50 percent oil, and the trees produce fruit year-round.

That means less land is converted for plantations than would be required for alternate sources. Deriving oil from soybeans, for instance, would require up to ten times more land, which in turn would lead to more deforestation and species loss, as well as, possibly, more land grabs from indigenous groups by corporate interests.

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Access roads and terraced fields destroy orangutan habitat in Borneo's lowlands.

Orangutan Refugees

"Most orangutans simply starve to death when their habitat is cleared," Desilets says. "Many end up venturing into newly planted areas of the oil-palm concessions and, in desperation, destroy young oil palm trees to get at the soft, inner shoots. Because of this, they become considered agricultural pests, to be eradicated."

It's against the law in Malaysia and Indonesia to capture, harm, or kill orangutans, but that's what can happen to them on plantations.

"The attacks on orangutans are often quite brutal," Desilets says. "Rescuers often find orangutans butchered with machetes, beaten to death with wooden planks and iron bars, riddled with pellets, even doused in fuel and set alight. Sometimes infants survive the killing of their mothers, but they're then sold into the lucrative illegal wildlife trade."

Facilities such as the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation's Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rescue Center and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme quarantine center are inundated with the survivors of these encounters.

Of the more than 1,200 orangutans now being cared for in rescue centers, most were displaced by conversion of habitat for oil palms.

"I often refer to illegal pet orangutans as 'refugees' from forests that no longer exist," says Ian Singleton, manager of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.

The opening of forests has also made it easier to hunt this otherwise elusive animal. Recently, hunting for meat and for the illegal pet trade has emerged as a significant factor in the decline of orangutan populations, especially in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo.

The Orangutan Land Trust's scientific advisory board estimates that some 3,000 orangutans are lost each year to habitat conversion and hunting. That's a huge loss, considering that the total number of orangutans remaining in the wild in Borneo may be no more than 45,000, and in Sumatra, 6,500.

Many forested areas being converted to oil palm have swampy, carbon-rich, peat soils. When cleared and drained, the exposed peat decomposes and emits carbon dioxide.

And peat fires, ignited when forest cover is burned off, release massive amounts of carbon dioxide.

A study of greenhouse gas emissions from palm oil expansion in Indonesia's Riau Province between 2000 and 2012 assessed carbon dioxide emissions at 5.2 million tons annually, with about 70 percent coming from areas with peat soils.

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An orangutan orphan clings to the hand of a human protector at the Nyaru Menteng rescue center.

Moving Toward Sustainability

For more than a decade, environmental and consumer groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, Rainforest Action Network, and Greenpeace have focused on moving the market toward sustainable palm oil.

Through the RSPO, criteria for sustainable palm oil were established, and certification levels laid out.

The weakest level, GreenPalm, involves users buying certificates at market rates (currently about $1.50 a ton for palm oil and $64 a ton for palm kernel oil) to cover their palm oil use and help finance the cost of production and supply changes made by others (without changing their own practices or sources).

The most stringent level—RSPO certified—in principle requires that no forest containing protected species or holding conservation significance can be cleared. In practice, however, there have been problems.

"I know of one concession where two separate assessments [of the forest to be cleared] found no orangutans, but indeed a local NGO did find orangutans," Desilets says.

At times rogue RSPO members have cleared critically important forest with impunity.

The new deforestation-free initiatives, which can be traced throughout the supply chain, add an important safety net for critical forest areas and the animals and people that depend on them.

But the definition of deforestation-free isn't straightforward, largely because there's no universally accepted definition of "forest." Two key yardsticks for forests that should be kept intact have emerged: high carbon stock (HCS) forest and high conservation value (HCV) forest.

The criteria for HCS forest focus on the amount of carbon stored in the aboveground vegetation: Any area with greater than 35 tons a hectare is worth preserving. HCV forests are areas that hold significance for protected species, livelihoods, cultures, or watershed management. Other definitions combine these two, and still others identify "no-go" areas based on forest types.

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A worker loads a cart on an oil palm plantation in Borneo, Malaysia.

A Who's Who of Palm Oil

In December 2013, the world's largest palm oil company, Wilmar International, which controls more than 45 percent of the global trade, committed to a policy of zero deforestation across all the palm oil it produces, sources, and trades.

In March, another palm oil giant, Golden Agri-Resources, matched this commitment by extending a 2011 policy that applied solely to its own supply chain.

"Pledges by these two big suppliers made it a lot easier for consumer companies to commit to zero deforestation because they now know their suppliers are going to be in order," Butler notes.

Indeed, buyers are announcing similar policies: Hershey in December; L'Oréal in January; Kellogg's in February; Colgate-Palmolive, General Mills, and Mars in March; Procter & Gamble in April; Johnson & Johnson and PepsiCo in May; Kao Group in June; J.M. Smucker and agricultural giant Cargill in July; packaged foods leviathan ConAgra in August; and Dunkin' Brands and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts in September.

They join early adopters Unilever (which buys about 1.5 million tons of palm oil each year), Nestlé, Ferrero, and Mondelēz International.

Butler says that "companies that commit to deforestation-free and other guidelines see financial gains—not from environmental services but from efficiency gains due to better management systems that are being implemented."

On September 19, five major palm oil producers—Sime Darby, Asian Agri, IOI Corporation, Kuala Lumpur Kepong, and Musim Mas—announced a moratorium on forest clearing to allow completion of a study of HCS forests to guide future practices.

Momentum keeps building. There's now a chain reaction, with companies both being pushed by their customers and pushing for change from their suppliers.

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Juvenile orangutans hang out with a keeper at the Nyaru Menteng rescue center.

More Work to Be Done

Many of the commitments need more specifics, including the definition of forests to be preserved, tighter implementation deadlines, and provisions for independent verification. Wilmar International's commitment won't come into force until the end of 2015; those of other companies, even later.

"While it's going in the right direction, the devil is in the details," says Rich Zimmerman, executive director of Orangutan Outreach. "We're optimistic, but it will come down to transparency, accountability, and law enforcement."

Commitments also need to be broadened. Dunkin' Brands' policy covers only its U.S. operations, not its international ones. Other major companies, particularly in the fast food industry, either have no such policies or weak ones.

Some forest habitats vital for orangutans—in parts of Sumatra, for example—have yet to be wrapped in. "Most big companies making commitments are not the ones with plantations here," says the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme's Singleton.

In other places companies are hindered by local governments. As Mongabay's Butler reported on October 5, "Situations have arisen where local officials have tried to seize forest reserves set aside by responsible firms and turn them over to companies or communities that have no qualms about chopping them down."

While all the deforestation-free commitments are positive steps, if they're to truly take hold, NGOs and consumers must ask more companies to join in. And progress must be monitored.

"These commitments create a powerful lever," Butler says. "If companies break their promises, NGOs can hold them accountable."

"We can now break the link between palm oil and the extinction of orangutans," says the Orangutan Land Trust's Desilets. "I can't understate the enormity of what no deforestation means, not just for orangutans but biodiversity and ecosystems at large."

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