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Orangutans versus Livelihoods: The Palm Oil Debate

The seemingly relentless slaughter of orangutans and the destruction of tropical rainforests across the islands of Borneo and Sumatra are hardly breaking news, but the problems continue to intensify.. Rapid increases in the international demand for palm oil have resulted in the felling of more than half of Indonesia’s rainforest, with more than 70 percent of this cleared land designated for palm oil plantations.

“The legacy of deforestation has been conflict, increased poverty, migration to the cities and the erosion of habitat for animals,” Abetnego Tarigan, director of Walhi, Indonesia’s largest environment group, told The Guardian. “As the forests come down, social conflicts are exploding everywhere.”

Photo by Laura Simpson Reeves
Photo by Laura Simpson Reeves

Animal rights activists have been campaigning against this issue for the past decade, fearing the loss of several already endangered species, including orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinos. Despite Indonesia’s moratorium on deforestation, important endangered-species habitats continue to be cleared for palm oil plantations as a result of corruption and illegal logging.

Several organizations such as The Orangutan Project offer volunteer and travel opportunities in Sumatra and Borneo to raise awareness of the issue and generate valuable funds for their projects.

Unfortunately, the issue is not a simple one to resolve. The production of palm oil can be a vital income source for many local farmers in these areas. Without palm oil plantations and related employment, poverty levels in the region will only increase. Other vegetable oils, such as sunflower, canola and soy, require four to 10 times as much land to produce the same output as palm oil, creating a more expensive product. This will create food price spikes, ultimately negatively affecting the world’s poorest people.

Recognizing this, many organizations are now campaigning for companies to use only sustainable palm oil in their products. Project POTICO argues that by utilizing already degraded land, palm oil plantations can continue to expand to meet international demands without further deforestation. The European Union adopted legislation in 2011 that requires manufacturers to specifically label vegetable oils on all their products—this means listing “palm oil” rather than just “vegetable oil” so that consumers can make informed choices. A group of Australian NGOs is currently campaigning for similar laws to be introduced in Australia.

Resources for Further Information & to Take Action

Better Palm Oil

Project POTICO: Sustainable Palm Oil on Degraded Land

Don’t Palm Us Off (Zoos Victoria)

Strengthen Sustainable Palm Oil Targets in the UK Petition

The Orangutan Project

Sustainable Palm Oil Platform (Zoological Society of London)

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