Sumatra’s forests have been falling relentlessly for decades, pushing orangutans and many other species to the edge of extinction. One of the leading drivers of this destruction has been the palm oil industry. Indonesia has the fastest deforestation rate in the world, and on Sumatra, there is now four times as much land used for oil palm plantations as there is habitat left for Sumatran orangutans.
As demand for palm oil continues to rise, vibrant, biodiverse rainforest is being removed to make way for oil palm plantations, and wildlife is being displaced, or killed. Many of the plantations are being established completely legally (note – legal doesn’t equate to sustainable!), but illegal plantations are also encroaching into protected forests and national parks.
Orangutans frequently get trapped in pockets of farmland as the forest falls around them. They sometimes resort to raiding crops, and ultimately they may starve, be shot, or captured for the illegal pet trade.
The view from the ground
In 2008, I found myself standing within the boundary of the Gunung Leuser National Park, faced with rows and rows of oil palms. The soil was dry and cracked, and there was absolute silence, not even birdsong. I was in one of the planet’s most incredible biodiversity hotspots, and the scene in front of me was devastating.
I was in Sumatra to visit the site of a new project which the Sumatran Orangutan Society was supporting, and I was filled with trepidation. We planned to return this land back into lush, green rainforest, but in that moment, it seemed like an impossible task.
A chainsaw started up, and rather than this tipping me even further into despair, I grinned. The only time it’s a cause for celebration when you hear a chainsaw in a national park is when it’s being used to cut down illegal oil palms – and as the first tree fell, a cheer went up from our small group.
Our sister organisation, Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), was reclaiming and restoring 500 hectares of national park land that had been stolen by a palm oil company, and as I planted a rainforest tree seedling in that barren soil (durian – orangutans’ favourite fruit), I hoped that it would survive.
Just two years later, I went back to the spot where I had planted that tree, and stood under the shade of its branches, closed my eyes and listened to a landscape buzzing with life. I heard gibbons and birds singing, and the team told me about a herd of elephants that had passed through the previous day. Not long after that, they spotted the first wild orangutan to return to the area. I smiled, sitting in my office on the other side of the world, and hoped that ‘my’ tree had provided a nice resting spot for him!
Ten years on, we are still supporting our frontline partners to reclaim oil palm plantations and restore them back to forest, with 13 sites covering more than 2,000 hectares now on the way to recovery. These once-barren landscapes are now thriving young forests, and camera traps show orangutans, elephants, sunbears and so many more species returning. Our green-fingered colleagues have proven that forests can be brought back to life – and we have been very fortunate to be supported in this by corporate partners such as Ecosia, Beautiful Cups and Lush.
At the end of 2017, Lush launched the #SOSsumatra campaign to raise funds for OIC to buy a 100 hectare plantation. Half of this land is already being restored to forest – the oil palms have been cleared and native tree seedlings are being nurtured, ready to be planted. The other half of the land is dedicated to permaculture – to provide training for rural communities on how to grow essential oils and other crops in a non-destructive manner; to provide income opportunities for the local community; to prevent encroachment into the national park and the protected forest, and to encourage the restoration of natural habitats for the return of native wildlife.
All agriculture has a footprint, and with over 4.5 million people in Indonesia alone relying on the palm oil industry as their primary source of income, palm oil is here to stay. What we need to do is ensure that it is cultivated in the least damaging way possible. Oil palms do not need to be grown at the expense of biodiverse forests. Instead, we need to demand an end to deforestation to ensure safe forests for orangutans and all the other species that also rely on the rainforest ecosystem.
Where can we go from here?
As the debate about whether ‘sustainable’ palm oil is an oxymoron continues to rage, forests continue to fall. The situation in Sumatra is desperate, but it is not without hope. As well as reclaiming and restoring forests, we are working hard, alongside many NGO and private sector colleagues, to break the link between development and deforestation – and thereby ensuring that forests are kept safe from the bulldozers and chainsaws.
SOS is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organisation which brings together companies that produce, trade, use or invest in palm oil, alongside conservation and social NGOs. We are working to improve the RSPO standard so that it better addresses some of the most serious impacts of the palm oil industry. Until the standard is strengthened, we advocate the production and use of responsible palm oil produced according to the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) Charter. POIG is a collection of NGOs and progressive palm oil producers that have established a detailed set of values that build on the RSPO standard and stipulate that palm oil operations must be free from deforestation, destruction of peatlands, and human rights abuses. It is crucial that companies’ commitments to clean up their supply chains are turned into action, and deforestation-free palm oil is already a reality, not just an aspiration.
We need palm oil producers to stop converting forests and peatlands to oil palm plantations; instead, they could use degraded land or increase yields on existing plantations. They also need to be transparent about their production methods and avoid labour, land and human rights violations. Companies selling products made with palm oil and its derivatives need to source responsibly-produced palm oil, ensuring their supply chain is traceable, and communicating honestly with their customers about their progress on the journey to using solely responsible palm oil. As a consumer, you can research which retailers and manufacturers are committed to removing deforestation from their products, join social media campaigns to drive the industry in the right direction, and support conservation organisations who are working to break the link between palm oil and deforestation.
Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) is a UK charity working to protect Sumatran orangutans, their forests and their future. Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered, with only 14,000 left in the wild, and we are dedicated to ensuring that populations of orangutans can thrive in safe forests, where they belong.
Our Rainforest Home Appeal is raising funds to buy an 890-acre strip of land at the edge of the Leuser Ecosystem. Once lush, biodiverse rainforest, the land is now an oil palm plantation and a wildlife conflict hotspot, where critically endangered species are in grave danger. By restoring the forest, we will create habitat for orangutans, elephants and tigers, as well as a buffer zone to protect the border of Leuser from encroachment and poachers.
Find out more and get involved: Orangutan SOS
Find out about one major UK supermarket’s approach to promoting conservation and sustainability through the eradication of palm oil in all own branded products in our latest article, ‘Richard Walker on Why We Need to Talk About Palm Oil’.
Interesting in entering the Global Good Awards in 2019?
It’s not too early to register your interest in entering for 2019. Entries open on 2nd January.
Anyone wishing to be part of the Global Good revolution and this unique awards programme can contact Founder, Karen Sutton: karen@GlobalGoodAwards.co.uk