The life of an orangutan on your plate

Do you eat instant noodles, margarine, chips or cereals? All these products may include palm oil. It can also be found in shampoos and lipsticks. One must be attentive when reading informative labels, because a vague marking of “vegetable oil” can also mean palm oil. Most palm oil production is for nutritional purposes, less is aimed at fuel. Palm oil is a product of oil palms, which are cultivated mainly in Malaysia and Indonesia. Plantations are established in rainforests, which destroys the habitats of orangutans (Pongo abelii and Pongo pygmeaus) and many other species. So far orangutans have lost about 80% of their original habitats.

Both proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) and orangutans are threatened by habitat loss. Proboscis monkeys only live in Borneo, orangutans also in Sumatra. © Sari Holopainen

Both proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) and orangutans are threatened by habitat loss. Proboscis monkeys only live in Borneo, orangutans also in Sumatra. © Sari Holopainen

Most oil palm plantations are established in rainforests. This means that the original rainforest nature is lost. After abandoning the plantation sites, secondary forest growing on the site does not correspond with the original forest. Plantations established on peatlands will make climate change worse due to the release of carbon dioxide.

Oil palm plantation established in the rainforest. The ground suffers from erosion, especially at the beginning of the cycle, when vegetation cover is particularly sparse. © Sari Holopainen

Oil palm plantation established in the rainforest. The ground suffers from erosion, especially at the beginning of the cycle, when vegetation cover is particularly sparse. © Sari Holopainen

Certification has been used to attempt to solve the environmental problems concerning palm oil production. For example WWF has contributed by planning the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)-certificate that stamps for responsibly produced oil. The certificate requires production to be sustainable in both environmental and societal issues.

In addition to environmental issues, palm oil production causes serious societal problems. Unclear landownership relations have led to conflicts between palm oil farmers and indigenous people. Human rights organizations are also concerned of the working conditions of cheap imported labor and undocumented immigrants on the plantations.

Oil palm plantations are spreading in the rainforest. Monocultures formed by the palms pose a striking difference to the biodiversity of the rainforest.  © Sari Holopainen

Oil palm plantations are spreading in the rainforest. Monocultures formed by the palms pose a striking difference to the biodiversity of the rainforest. © Sari Holopainen

Voluntary agreements, such as RSPO try to respond to these gaps in national laws or the lack of following them. However, research published in 2014 found that RSPO has failed to conserve forest habitats, especially orangutan habitats in Indonesia.

The study found that the financial compensation is too small to encourage farmers to apply the certificate. The authors also suggest that there is too much room for interpretation in the guidance documents and that contradicting issues are not solved. In addition the authors saw that the integration of RSPO within the socio-politico-legal Indonesian context has failed and that there is not enough external control in the system. The authors suggest that the Indonesian palm oil sector needs to be reformed if we wish to conserve rainforest biodiversity. This would mean the implementation of a bottom-up approach that supports local development by socio-ecological regional planning.

Orangutans need large forest areas to survive. At the current rate orangutans are expected to become extinct from nature by 2020.

Orphan Tenten is learning orangutan habits in the Rasa Ria nature reserve.

Orphan Tenten is learning orangutan habits in the Rasa Ria nature reserve.

 

Read more: Ruysschaert, D. & Salles D. 2014. Towards global voluntary standards: Questioning the effectiveness in attaining conservation goals The case of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Ecological Economics 107: 438–446.

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