Orangutans and palm-based biofuel don't mix

In Indonesia, the thirst for palm oil is decimating the rainforest habitat these primates need to survive

By Anna Sussman

Orangutans gather to be fed at a ranger station in Bukit Luwang National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia. Credit: Anna Sussman

Crouching low in a canoe, my sneakers and socks are quickly soaked with river water. A stocky, shirtless park ranger in blue jeans pulls the boat across the river by rope-pulley rigged between trees. When we reach the opposite shore, we climb out of the vessel and walk along the muddy riverbanks and up through the rainforest until we reach a feeding platform. There, park rangers bang loudly on a plastic bucket. They are calling the orangutans.

I have come to northern Sumatra, an island in the Indian Ocean covered with twisting dirt roads and steep green mountains, to report on the orangutans because there isn’t much time. Experts say the world’s 30,000 remaining orangutans will go extinct in 3 to 20 years. The last of the hairy apes live on the islands of Indonesia and Malaysia, where they spend most of their time in the trees, eating fruits and leaves.

Here in Indonesia, their forest home is being leveled at a rate faster than 300 football fields per hour, according to Greenpeace forest campaigner Hapsoro, primarily to make way for palm oil plantations, vast expanses of non-indigenous palms where the trees’ fruit is harvested for its rich oil. The oil is found in sundry products, from snack foods to beauty products, and is increasingly being used in biofuel production.  The rainforest is disappearing so quickly that there is not enough food left for the orangutans to forage. In the Bukit Luwang national Park, they are hand fed bananas from park rangers to supplement their diet.

“The future for the orangutans is in the hands of the humans now,” said Dharma Bhodi, a park ranger at Bukit Luwang who was born and raised in this remote region. As Bodhi talks, an adolescent male orangutan hangs lazily by one arm in a tree above us. He looks down occasionally, gives a bored look, and reaches for a handful of leaves to chew. “Humans have been cutting down the forest for plantations. I have seen the places that used to be rainforest and now are plantation, you can’t recognize it anymore,” he said. “Neither can the orangutans."

Palm oil has long been a staple in Indonesia. There (and in products the world over) it’s used in everything from soap to ice cream. Over the last year and a half, crude palm oil has become even more valuable in the global rush for environmentally sustainable biofuels: In fact, due to rising demand, the price for the oil has increased by 88 percent. Poor countries like Indonesia, the world’s leading palm oil producer, are clearing thousands of acres of pristine rainforest to plant the crop.

Plantation proponents say that palm oil is environmentally superior to fossil fuel because it doesn’t add to the earth’s over-all carbon dioxide levels. Instead, carbon dioxide created when the biofuel is burned is absorbed by the plant itself. Another boon is the economic growth for small landholders and family farmers.

Critics say those benefits aren’t worth the ecological costs of palm oil production. Destruction of rainforest to make room for plantations releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide: clearing land produces some 400 mega-tons of the greenhouse gas annually in Indonesia. Meanwhile, orangutans and other species that call the rainforest home are left searching for food, water, and shelter in a barren mudscape.

But some in Indonesia are working to stem the spread of the seemingly unstoppable palm industry. Hardi Baktiantoro founded the Centre for Orangutan Protection in Indonesia, a Jakarta- based non-profit. He, his wife, and her brother wear matching T-shirts that say “Palm Oil Kills.” Together, along with his two toddlers, they take frequent trips to document decimated rainforest areas. He takes photos while she shoots video for use on their website, in reports, speaking engagements, and direct-action events. They are trying to save what’s left of the rainforest for the orangutans.

“I find dead orangutans, they have starved to death. There is no food, no water,” he said.  He tells me that on the Indonesian island of Kalimantan (formerly Borneo), more than ten orangutans are starving to death each day because of palm-oil driven deforestation. “The situation for orangutans today is very, very critical. The experts say the orangutans will be extinct in 2015. The orangutans will be extinct in next three years unless the government takes extreme action to save them. But instead they are planning convert 455,000 hectares of forest [in Kalimantan] into new plantations, mostly palm oil,” he said.

The workers on those plantations see orangutans as nuisances that trample and eat their crops. “The plantation workers have to protect the oil-palms. That is their job. To them the orangutan who is hunting for food is only a pest,” said Baktiantoro, clicking through slides on his laptop of orangutans whose fingers and hands have been mutilated by plantation workers, and others chained to workers’ dormitories.

In northern Sumatra, uniform rows of oil-palms line the roads in mile after mile of plantation. After bumping down the road in a white minivan, we pull-over and approach a husband and wife team working the trees. Thirty-seven year-old Parida picks up loose, red palm fruits from the ground and drops them into a bucket. Her husband slashes the massive fruits from the trees with a knife attached to the end of a 20-foot pole. Palm oil processing employs thousands of workers like Parida and her husband in Indonesia. Parida is clearly uncomfortable speaking with us and she smiles nervously as she goes about her work. She says she makes fewer than three dollars a day, which she uses to help feed and care for her three children. “Without the palm oil company I would have no job,” she said.

But Baktiantoro insists that the workers would be better off farming and fishing on their own land. “I never heard that workers in plantations become wealthy because of the plantations,” he said. “The profit is for the company, not for the workers."

Back at Bukit Luwang National Park, I eat lunch at a riverside restaurant with some local tour guides. Young and entrepreneurial, these guys make their money leading European tourists to the orangutan feeding platform. They tell us that everyone here dreams of someday turning their land—low-lying rainforest on the edge of the park—into oil-palm plantations.

It is clear that any long-term solution to the deforestation problem will have to find a way to replace the substantial income generated by oil-palm. The Indonesian government has called on Western nations to help implement environmental standards for the industry. This year, some major palm oil buyers, like Unilever, the company behind Dove soap and Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, announced they would not support the clearing of any new land for palm oil plantations.

At the tiny Medan airport in Sumatra, my flight to Jakarta has been delayed by four hours, so I hunker down in a metal chair at a sweltering Dunkin Donuts. As a father and daughter next to me say a prayer over their donuts, I am reminded of another suggestion: introducing orangutan-safe palm oil logos for baked goods and cleaning products. Like the dolphin-safe tuna logo, forest campaigner Hapsoro believes branding could help Western consumers weigh in on the issue with their purchasing power.

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