Iceland’s Christmas advert has reminded the public of the deadly struggle between the palm oil industry and the very survival of the Bornean and Sumatran Orangutans. Both the Bornean and Sumatran Orangutans are critically endangered species listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Mammals and Appendix I CITES; this is despite continued efforts to brand palm oil as sustainable and capable of co-existing with the Orangutans. The questions we have to ask ourselves are, how did we get here and where do we go from here?
The spread of palm oil plantations in the rainforest habitats of the Orangutans
The Bornean and Sumatran Orangutans live in the South East Asian rainforests. Yet, of the 16 million km2 of tropical rainforests that once existed, only around 9 million km2 exists today, with forests in South East Asia disappearing most rapidly. The simple fact is that we are losing over 6,000 Orangutans a year, and this is disproportionately due to the spread of palm oil plantations and the palm oil industry.
In Indonesia and Malaysia, the area planted with palm oil has trebled from 24,000 km2 in 1990 to 83,700 km2 in 2007, an average annual increase of around 3,500 km2, and it is estimated that at least 55% of oil palm expansion in these countries comes at the expense of natural forests. The resulting outcome is that almost 80% of Orangutan habitat has disappeared in the last 20 years.
Sustainable or not sustainable, that is the Orangutan’s question
Despite repeated and high profile warnings of the toll the development of the industry is taking on the regions of Sumatra and Borneo’s biodiversity, especially to the Orangutan, the number of plantations continues to increase. By 2020 Indonesia’s palm oil plantations are projected to triple in size to 16.5 million hectares, an area the size of England and Wales combined. This expansion will have devastating impacts on the remaining Orangutan habitat. How, then, can palm oil be branded as sustainable when it is continuing to have such catastrophic impacts on Orangutan populations, which WWF estimates there are only 55,000 left of in the wild?
On paper, all oil palm plantations should already be sustainable, as their development is strongly regulated by laws in both Indonesia and Malaysia. In South East Asia, no significant land development activities are permitted before a company has obtained a valid Plantation Business Permit (IUP), which should only be awarded after an Environmental Impact Assessment has been completed and approved. According to Indonesian law, developing a palm plantation without an EIA should result in any IUP that has been issued being revoked. As Orangutans are a protected species throughout the country and in international legislation, combined with this regulation of palm oil activity, their presence in any forested area should, on paper, ensure its protection. But, the cultivation of palm oil in Indonesia is not governed by a single act or regulation, but rather lies within a complex landscape of both sectoral and autonomy law, some of it directly applicable, some of it only indirectly applicable. Combine this with the fact that enforcement is weak, loop holes are plentiful and economic demand is staggering, the laws are ineffective and inefficient at protecting the Orangutans.
Furthermore, despite the establishment of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) it is debatable whether this voluntary body really has had much influence on what actually has been happening in the field, as forests continue to be torn down at an ever growing rate. Although in 2012, RSPO praised the Food Information Regulations 2013 for drawing attention, through its transparent labelling requirements, to the copious presence of palm oil in our food, beauty and cleaning products, still more land is cleared for palm oil, and still more Orangutans are dying. Further, demand in the UK and Europe will increase rapidly with the development of the biofuel industry as palm oil is the cheapest vegetable oil on the international commodity market. The future does not look bright for the Orangutan from this perspective.
A battle to the death: Palm Oil v Orangutan?
Orangutans are the slowest reproducing species in the world, and so if we do not act to combat the palm oil sustainability paradox, we risk losing them entirely before my generation’s children are in their early twenties. In 2012, the UK Government recognised that humans are part of the palm oil problem and could also be part of the solution. They set a commitment for 100% of the palm oil used in the UK to be from sustainable sources that don’t harm nature or people and for this to mean true sustainability, rather than just be a hollow term. In 2016, 78% of the total palm oil imports to the UK were sustainable. This is great progress but there is more to be done to get to 100% and to have a meaningful chance of saving the Orangutans.
Iceland’s advert may not be making it to our television screens, but as Christmas should be about the gift of giving, this year at the top of my wish-list is that we give the Orangutans a fighting chance to survive.