Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Orangutans and Palm Oil Profits

I recall a time when it was the African gorilla which were the images in the media about the need to change our ways when it came to our relationship with nature. Now it is the Asian orangutans that are suffering from capitalism's rapacious need for profits. Every day  25 orangutans worldwide are  killed due to habitat destruction.
Deforestation and habitat destruction are rampant in Southeast Asia, mainly due to palm oil production. According to the World Bank, the agriculture industry employs about 30 percent of the Indonesian workforce, with the palm oil and pulp-and-paper industries being key constituents of the sector. Palm oil surpassed oil and gas as the biggest component of Indonesia’s Gross Domestic Product in 2016. The region alone produces 87 percent of the world’s palm oil. The 18 million hectares of palm oil plantations in Borneo have destroyed more than half of the island’s rainforests, leaving wildlife and especially orangutans vulnerable to abuse and death. Indonesia’s forests are being decimated for palm oil production at an alarming rate. The area of Indonesian forest burned by palm oil producers for clearing just in 2015 was more than 26 times the area of forest destroyed by all the California wildfires of November 2018.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classified Bornean orangutans as critically endangered in 2016. Orangutans are still being hunted as intruders on palm oil plantations, despite protective regulations being in place since 1985. An estimated 104,700 orangutans survive in Borneo today, down from a population of 230,000 in 2007. In the last 20 years, palm oil producers have slashed orangutan habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia by more than 80 percent

The Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP), based in Jakarta, Indonesia, works at the front lines, campaigning against habitat destruction in Borneo, rescuing and releasing orangutans, and actively protesting palm oil companies. One of Indonesia’s most dogged activist groups, COP hijacked the 2013 Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in Medan, Sumatra, by barging in on the meeting dressed in orangutan costumes, urging a boycott of the palm oil companies present at the meeting.

 Leading COP’s habitat campaign efforts is Paulinus Kristianto from Kalimantan, Borneo. Deforestation is a deeply personal issue for Kristianto, an Indigenous Dayak. Kristianto, a videographer by trade, documents what’s happening in Kalimantan to educate the Dayak people and the world.
The Dayaks share the forests with orangutans; the Dayak people well understand that their fates are intertwined. The Dayaks are witnessing the end of their way of life. Indigenous cultures in Borneo are being threatened by the deadly trifecta of palm oil extraction, hydroelectric development and commercial logging.
“When I see the Dayak tribes, my family, lose the forest, we can’t do anything. We try to fight and the companies send us to jail,” Kristianto told Truthout. “So, I must go to fight. It comes from my heart. I must prove to the people what’s happening is bad.”

Dayaks are committed to protecting their forests, and their own communities by extension. A misleading study claims that orangutan populations are in decline due to hunting by Dayaks. Supporters of palm oil production widely cite this dated survey, published in 2011 with the assistance of the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, to justify their destructive activities. The survey, which observed kill rates by Dayaks to be higher than expected, does not align with Kristianto’s lived experiences.
 “In all my seven years of conservation work, I’ve never seen an orangutan killed because of hunting by Indigenous people,” he said. “Villagers are not causing the spike in orangutan mutilations and murders.”
 According to Kristianto, palm oil companies are killing the orangutans; their incentive is to protect their private, commercial property from “agricultural pests.” Some palm oil companies place bounties on orangutans in an effort to minimize the damage that orangutans inflict on their crops. As plantations continue to encroach upon orangutan habitats and destroy their sources of wild fruits, the primates resort to eating palm oil fruit to survive. Over the last decade, companies have been offering payments of up to US$100 to villagers and workers who bring back a severed orangutan foot, hand or head as evidence of a killing.

Indonesian law states that it is illegal to kill an endangered species like an orangutan; doing so could result in up to five years in jail and a fine of USD $7,400. Despite some arrests, the Indonesian legal system has never handed down a full sentence commensurate with the crime. 

In 2018, the federal government of Indonesia issued a moratorium on the opening of new palm oil plantations. However, local governments that ignore the moratorium and continue to allow the establishment of new plantations face no consequences from the federal government. Palm oil companies that already hold local permits can still establish new plantations. Abetnego Tarigan, former executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment and a senior adviser to the Indonesian president, has a unique perspective on the government’s stake in palm oil. 

“The strategy to maintain the position of Indonesia in the palm oil sector is to improve productivity,” Tarigan told Truthout. “So the moratorium is actually a way to improve the palm oil sector by increasing productivity.” Tarigan agrees that the federal government’s moratorium on new plantations by itself is not enough to curb palm-oil-driven deforestation, and says that stricter reviews of palm oil development permits are crucially needed. “It’s public knowledge that many permits are released to bribery without the support of an environmental impact assessment or disaster risk,” he said.

Kristianto, who has seen first-hand the devastation caused by palm oil, declares himself not to be anti-palm oil. “Palm oil is still needed in Kalimantan,” he says. “So many places are isolated, and palm oil companies build infrastructure.”

Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) Director Jamartin Sihite pulls all threads of human development into the picture. “You cannot talk conservation with hungry people. Give people a way to find an alternative livelihood. It’s so complicated with poverty alleviation, rescue and release, monitoring and combating fires,” said Sihite.
For those orangutans fortunate enough to be rescued from habitat destruction and protected from hunters, the journey back to the forest is not guaranteed. The Wildlife Rescue Centre (WRC) in Yogyakarta (also referred to as Jogja), Java, Indonesia, supports the COP’s program to rehabilitate and release orangutans. The WRC cares for orangutans, macaques, sun bears, gibbons, eagles, monkeys, cassowaries and many more animals rescued from illegal trade or poaching. Habitat conservation does not always lead to rescued animals’ full rehabilitation and release, however.
Deforestation endangers orangutans; it also affects other animal and plant species that don’t receive much or any media attention. “If you lose orangutans, you lose the 40 types of plants that are grown through their digestive systems,” WRC Jogja Director Rosalia Setiawati said. 

Sihite agrees, calling orangutans “the gardeners of the forest.”


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