Orangutans, Palm Oil, and Progress

Accounting for 11% of Indonesia’s export earnings, palm oil is the most valuable agricultural export.  Creating many environmental problems, cultivating large quantities of palm involves clearing substantial areas of virgin tropical rainforest.  Having substantial effects on wildlife, palm oil corporations drive local communities, indigenous people, and small landowners from their own land.  Leading to more than 700 land conflicts, there are human rights violations, even on ‘sustainable’ plantations.  Regulation for palm oil companies does take place, by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), but independent organisations identify corruption and illegal practice.

What is Palm Oil?

The Palm Oil Guide

What Are the Effects of Palm Oil Plantations?

Peat and Carbon Emissions

Establishing a palm oil plantation often involves planting on peatland; encompassing carbon-rich, partly decomposed organic matter. In order for agriculture success, companies must drain or burn, the land to dry it. Consequences of this process result in releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Analysing carbon emissions, the World Resources Institute (WRI), state that draining a single hectare is equal to burning more than 6,000 gallons of gasoline. Subsequently, Indonesia, in 2015 exceeded the average daily emissions by the U.S. economy.

Bulldozing Rainforests

Bulldozed rain forests in Borneo

Bulldozed rain forests in Borneo

Due to peatland being difficult and expensive to make into fertile soil, palm oil companies prefer to clear rain forests. Not needing to use chemical fertilizer, to repair the effects of fire, companies can also make money from the valuable timber being cut down. Reporting on Borneo’s deforestation, a journal from the Public Library of Science estimates a 30% destruction of the rainforest, over the last four decades, due to plantations and logging. In Sumatra, at least 10.8 million hectares are now palm oil plantations, only 20% of these are sustainable. Deforestation causes soil erosion and adds to the air pollution from carbon, it also produces methane. As a result, palm oil-based biofuels end up having three times as much impact on the climate, than traditional fossil fuels.

The Decline of Orangutan Populations

Habitat protection will not solve the orangutan crisis alone, or protect their survival.  There are several other major problems causing their depletion and critically endangered position.  In Indonesia and Malaysia, it is illegal to capture, injure, kill, own, keep, transport, or trade an Orangutan.

Orangutan facts

Illegal hunting

Eaten in various parts of Indonesia and Malaysia is orangutan meat. Most communities, including Islāmic and Christian, generally refrain from eating the meat, but experts predict it is due to depleting numbers, and not a cultural shift. A complex issue, Malaysian people are known to kill and eat orangutans over a period of at least 40,000 years. Remaining an integral part of indigenous culture, surveys in the Kalimantan state show that eating orangutans claims around 1,000 a year. Killing of orangutans, not only for their meat, many claim medicinal benefits and using orangutan skin as a form of talisman, protecting houses from fire.

The Pet Trade
A fully-grown male orangutan has the power of 5-7 adult human males

A fully grown male orangutan has the power of 5-7 adult human males, with unpredictable and aggressive behaviour.

Keeping orangutans as pets is widespread, on a domestic and international level.  Often kept as a status symbol in Indonesia, it can show not only wealth but also that a person is above the law.  Unfamiliar to most orangutan infant owners, is by the age of 5, an orangutan has the strength of an adult male human.  By maturity, an orangutan will be as strong as 5-7 adult male humans, with an unpredictable and possibly aggressive nature.

Additionally to being domestic pets, poaching of orangutans occurs for placement in zoos and wildlife parks, across Indonesia.  Smuggling orangutans out of Indonesia is frequent, as they are very popular performers among other South East Asian countries, such as Taiwan.

A By-Product of Deforestation and Human Confrontation

As forests begin to clear for plantations, processes kill orangutans. In central Kalimantan, a palm oil company allegedly paid local people around 150,000 Rupiah, for every ‘pest’ killed.  Known as a common practice, across Borneo and Sumatra by companies, in this case, an NGO managed to rescue 52 adults and 11 infant orangutans.  Known for raiding crops, Sumatran orangutans killings often occur while they eat fruit on farmland, at the edges of their forest habitat.

The Future

Paris Climate Agreement

Paris Climate Agreement

Planning to prevent damage to peatland and develop peat restoration, the Paris climate agreement aims to ban almost all peatland conversions into palm oil plantations. Director of the World’s Resources Institute, Nirarta Samadhi, states that by 2030, this new regulation could save 5.5 billion to 7.8 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide.  Not only a major contribution to the climate, this has significant impact on the millions of Indonesians suffering effects of toxic haze.

Sustainable Palm Oil

Showing signs of environmental responsibility, supermarket Tesco is attempting to ensure that all the palm oil in their products comes from certified sustainable sources.  Collaborating with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Tesco products now contain around 93% sustainable palm oil, and they plan to increase this to 95%.  Examining Tesco’s own brand products, they have around 99% sustainable palm oil.

Establishing the RSPO, palm oil supply companies aim to set voluntary guidelines for sustainability; no longer destroying primary rainforests or violating the land rights of local people.  However, so far this has not been the case; companies continue to destroy forests and local people face imprisonment for protesting their ownership of taken from them.

The IOI Vs Greenpeace

IOI supplier violations

Violations by numerous companies supplying palm oil to IOI.

Stripping IOI (a palm oil supply giant), of its sustainable palm oil status, the RSPO ruling states IOI did not meet sustainable palm oil standards, despite them being on the board of governors. Unilever, Kelloggs, and Mars all dropped their relationship with the corporation, in light of the verdict. However, by August, IOI regained their certification and Unilever has interest in using them as a supplier again.

Concluding an investigation this September, Greenpeace damned IOI and the palm oil growers that supply them. One of the world’s largest palm oil traders and processors, IOI cannot meet their own demand and have to rely on 62% of palm oil from third-party sources. IOI claim they constantly monitor suppliers and indirectly sourced mills, but publicly acknowledging that they have had issues.  Rebutting IOI’s acknowledgment of misconduct, Greenpeace claims they make no attempt to cancel trade deals with illegitimate companies. Examples such as Goodhope are known to illegally clear primary rainforest, develop without local community permission and even use child labour. Greenpeace claim, IOI is not taking enough responsibility for third-party company behaviour. In contrast, IOI claims that they no longer source from companies like Goodhope, who are proven to perform illegal practices.

Read Greenpeace’s report in full here.


An area of forest, in the provinces of North Sumatra and Aceh, the Leuser Ecosystem has some of the most critically endangered species including the Elephants, Rhinoceros, tiger and the Sumatran orangutan.

In 2013, Aceh Province Government approved Spatial Plan for land use. Effectively legalising new roads, the constructions disrupt the sensitive ecosystem and contribute to further destruction of the forest, hunting, and encroachment of animals. Dozens of palm oil companies already have permits to operate in Leuser, but if the plan were to pass the effects would be monumental. The province is seeking federal approval for the plantations of palm oil, as well as mining and timber concessions.

In early 2016, nine Aceh citizens legally challenged the Spatial Plan, with a class action lawsuit, attempting to replace it with a plan that complies with the legal system.  This involves environmental sensitivity analysis and encompasses appropriate protection.

Local Effects

International Animal Rescue

Baby Orangutan at International Animal Rescue

Working in West Kalimantan, in the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, International Animal Rescue is dealing with an aftermath of plantations, pets, and human conflict. Sheltering orangutans that could never learn to fend for themselves in the wild, the centre also restores orangutan’s health that can and teaches infants the necessary skills for survival in independent living. Arriving at the centre, many infants have never climbed a tree, due to being taken by poachers at an incredibly early age and domesticated.

Skills to teach an infant are numerous, as they remain with their mothers for a significantly long time of 7 years. Highly dexterous, orangutans construct fresh nests each night to sleep, weaving branches and leaves together. Known to make umbrellas from the rain, all these acts are cultural that passes on from generation to generation and differ by region. Going beyond basic hunter-gatherer skills, high intelligence means a transition into the wild is not simple. Organisations, such as International Animal Rescue must ensure orangutan survival before releasing them, otherwise, it is another life lost.


Ensuring the future of orangutans, now involves humans and orangutans cohabiting successfully.  Many, such as Cheryl Knott and Marc Ancrenaz, are looking towards local communities to be on the front line for animal conservation.  As respective anthropologists and conservationists, they are developing sustainable alternative livelihoods for people in Borneo.  Preventing illegal logging and poaching, Ancrenaz promotes working in ecotourism, where people can earn a living off orangutans.  Providing educational programmes these initiatives allow communities to gain knowledge and transform their approaches.  Changes, such as this, are what will prevent orangutans as pets, illegal hunting and no longer seeing them as pests in the wild.

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