After his forest home was destroyed to make room for palm fruit oil plantations in West Borneo, the charred primate pictured above dared to abate his starvation by feeding on the fruit of the trees that replaced his former lush peat jungle.
In an attempt to smoke the animal out of the palm tree it had taken refuge in, villagers accidentally set the entire tree and the orangutan on fire. He plummeted out of the tree and into the care of International Animal Rescue (IAR).
Although originally expected to make a full recovery, IAR reported that the orangutan succumbed to his burns and overall malnourished state when he died last week.
While this specific incident is immensely tragic taken on its own, the orangutan species as a whole is under serious threat in large part because of the world’s demand for cheap palm fruit oil which is fueling the clear cutting and burning of Indonesia’s once-vast rain forests to establish palm plantations.
Orangutans can only be found naturally on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo and are divided into two species based on which island they live. Both species are listed on the IUCN Red List of the mostendangered species in the world. The Bornean orangutan is listed as “endangered,” and its Sumatran cousins bear the burden of being listed as “critically endangered,” and in immediate threat of extinction.
Estimates put the Borneo great apes at numbering about 54,000, and the Sumatran at about 6,600, giving orangutans a spot as one of the World’s Top 25 Most Endangered Primates, according to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.
These close human relatives are arguably the most intelligent of our ape cousins and use tools better than any other non-human primate. As they attempt to live out their lives in the same way they’ve been doing for millennia, their forest homes are being destroyed at a rate of about three football fields every day.
Just in the last 20 years, half of Indonesia’s rain forest has been obliterated, and, as Leila Salazar-Lopez of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) told Voices for our Planet, the government has announced plans to convert an area of virgin forest about the size of Missouri into palm plantations by 2020.
This mass destruction is taking the lives of about 50 orangutans per week, Zoos Victoria in Australiaestimates. And demand for palm oil just keeps increasing. According to RAN, “demand for the oil surged by an average of 2.2 million metric tons worldwide each year between 2000 and 2009.”
While conservationists are projecting that we may see the extinction of these beautiful, long-red-haired apes in the next few decades, it doesn’t take a scientist to do the math. As long as we keep buying products containing palm fruit oil, orangutans will continue to be treated as agricultural pests and subjected to being burned alive in their own homes, shot as they forage for food, imprisoned for the exotic pet trade and tortured in captivity to do tricks for tourists.
Palm oil has become popular with industries from cosmetics to processed food to biodiesel because it is the cheapest of the vegetable oils to manufacture. And it is in everything. A quick scan of all of my favorite green products broke my heart. I was just as responsible for the burning of that orangutan as any of the villagers that set the fire.
My Earth Balance peanut butter and “buttery” spread said simply “Palm Fruit Oil.” My Seventh Generation dish soap and laundry detergents both listed “sodium lauryl sulfate” as one of the first ingredients.
A quick call the Earth Balance revealed that it sources most of its palm oil from Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) members. While this is a step above the majority of companies, is still does nothing to guarantee that orangutans are not being harassed or even killed.
The RSPO was created by NGOs and palm oil stakeholders in an effort to create a way for palm oil to be grown sustainably. The process is not perfect as there are few advantages to being certified. But if more consumers begin demanding that companies source only RSPO certified palm oil, the system would advance.
One of the biggest challenges for consumers is the lack of appropriate labeling for palm oil. Found in more than 60 percent of manufactured goods, it can be listed under more than 200 different names.
The sodium lauryl sulfate in my Seventh Generation laundry detergent is most likely palm-oil sourced (they did not return my call for more information). It can be listed simply as “vegetable oil,” or other common ingredients that come at the price of Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s rain forests and their inhabitants (and all of us for that matter) are cetyl alcohol, linoleic acid or octyl palmitate. Check out this complete list.
The destruction of these forests has made Indonesia the largest emitter of carbon dioxide after the United States and China as the reckless clearing of peat swamp forests releases huge amounts of the gas while leaving a trail of species at risk for extinction like our close relative the orangutan and the mysterious Sumatran tiger, rhino and elephant.
While we might figure out a way to survive a world filled with carbon dioxide gas and devoid of forests, we will have to figure out a way to enjoy it alone.
- It’s Either Orangutans Or Cheap Palm Oil (ipsnews.net)
- Orangutan Burned by Villagers in Indonesia Dies (climateofourfuture.wordpress.com)
Written by Ashley Schaeffer
Although there are no major fires still tearing through the Tripa peat forest in Sumatra — the largest remaining Sumatran orangutan habitat in the world — updates from our allies on the ground tell us that Tripa is still gravely at risk. With one or two small fires still breaking out each day, combined with ongoing active forest clearing for palm oil plantations, the critically endangered orangutans depending on this forest for survival remain in danger.
Despite the international spotlight on Tripa since late March, there is still active clearing and building of more drainage canals going deep into primary forest.
I wish I could say that some of the largest players in the palm oil industry, such as Cargill, are doing everything in their power to ensure that controversial palm oil coming from these types of tragedies isn’t ending up in their supply chain (and our pantries), but that is definitely not the case.
RAN’s report, Truth and Consequences: Palm Oil Plantations Push Unique Orangutan Population to Brink of Extinction, points out that Cargill has no safeguards on its global palm oil supply chain, and that without such safeguards Cargill cannot ensure it is not contributing to egregious violations like the one underway in the Tripa peat forest of Indonesia.
Although Cargill is still misleading the public by releasing statements like the one from last week, titled, “Cargill Refutes Rainforest Action Network claims about Tripa Forest,” the bottom line remains: Cargill traffics a whopping 25% of the world’s palm oil and Cargill cannot ensure it is not trading palm oil from Tripa or parent companies profiting from the destruction of Tripa because it has no safeguards whatsoever in place to prevent it.
RAN released an official response to Cargill’s misleading claims last week with the following key points:
- Cargill claims that it “does not import Indonesian palm oil to the United States.” This is pure obfuscation. By Cargill’s own estimate, nearly 90 percent of the world’s palm oil is sourced from Indonesia and Malaysia, and the company traffics 25 percent of the world’s palm oil. Cargill’s claim that it does not ship any Indonesian palm oil into the U.S. is misleading and insincere, as a percentage of Indonesia’s palm oil is refined in Malaysia before being shipped to the US.
- Cargill also claims that it is not associated with the devastating fires raging throughout the Tripa rainforest of Indonesia. Cargill is hiding behind a shell game of shifting company ownership and complicated trade relationships between a web of subsidiary suppliers. However, the fact is that Cargill has a history of trading with at least one company that has profited from the destruction of the priceless Tripa rainforest.Trade data held by Rainforest Action Network shows that Cargill shipped at least 4,000 tons of crude palm oil produced by Astra Agro Lestari from the island of Sumatra in 2009. Astra Agro Lestari produced and exported palm oil from Tripa until at least 2010.According to Bloomberg, Astra Agro Lestari also sells millions of dollars of palm oil a year to industry giants Wilmar and Sinar Mas — two major suppliers of palm oil to Cargill. With a lack of supply chain transparency and no safeguards to prevent it, Cargill cannot in good faith claim never to have sold palm oil connected to the destruction of the endangered Tripa forest.
- Cargill has an enormous influence to exercise on the global palm oil market. The only way Cargill can guarantee it is not contributing to the devastation underway in Indonesia is if it adopts explicit environmental, social and transparency safeguards to prevent it, which does not mean relying on a third party like the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). It does mean taking responsibility for the practices of its suppliers. Cargill as a company has not articulated its values for its supply chain, meaning it does not publicly position itself against common abuses associated with palm oil production like slave labor and deforestation. Cargill has stated an intention to phase RSPO-certified oil into its global supply chain by 2020. However, the RSPO has at best a very spotty track record of enforcing its own rules to prevent tragedies like the one underway in Tripa. At the rate of destruction occurring today, 2020 is too little, too late for the forests, people and wildlife of Southeast Asia.
Just last week, Unilever, the world’s largest buyer of palm oil, announced a commitment to buy all of its palm oil, including its palm kernel oil, from traceable sources by 2020. Cargill’s modest commitments explicitly exclude palm kernel oil, an important commodity in the US market. Cargill also has no commitment to traceability, a crucial element for achieving transparency and accountability.
Cargill is showing an alarming failure to deliver on its time-bound commitments, including to secure RSPO certification for all of its palm oil plantations by the end of 2010, and completion of a survey and review of the practices of its palm oil suppliers by early 2011.
This post was originally published by Rainforest Action Network.
- Setting the Record Straight: Cargill and Tripa Forest Controversy (understory.ran.org)
- SOCP Tripa Battle Call (endoftheicons.wordpress.com)
- Take Action: Orangutan Forest on Fire (endoftheicons.wordpress.com)
- MEDIA ALERT: Orangutan rescue taking place in Tripa Peat Swamp Forest – RIGHT NOW! (endoftheicons.wordpress.com)
- Tragedy in Tripa: Cargill Can Make a Difference (understory.ran.org)
- Next steps to save Tripa forest …Lindsey Allen, Rainforest Action Network (point4counterpoint.wordpress.com)