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In six weeks today I leave for the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which is a sanctuary in the northern state of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. I’ll be working at the Centre for two months, during which time I will be dedicated to the care of the resident rescue orangutans as well as surveying areas of jungle for wild orangutans. One part of me can’t wait to tell you about the journey – the other part, well… Species of orangutan face a lot of hardships, and I know it will be difficult to see some of these first-hand.
The Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) is a species endemic to the island of Borneo and is categorised on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as Endangered. It is currently thought that there are three subspecies of the Bornean orangutan; Pongo pygmaeus morio is the subspecies you will find in the Sabah region, and it is estimated that there are less than 10,000 individuals of this subspecies remaining in the area. In the last 60 years the Bornean Orangutan’s numbers have been declining at a rate of well over 50%, and this is not predicted to stop.

The undisputed main threat to the species is habitat loss due to agriculture – and undoubtedly the number one offender of this group is palm oil plantations. Of an island 740,000 square kilometers large, only 86,000km² remains as available habitat for native species such as the Bornean Orangutan – that’s little over 10%. A few years ago, when I was first looking into getting involved with a project in Borneo, someone asked me, “So what? Rainforests are only for tourists anyway.” This was a sad notion to hear, yet it is a common one. The idea that we can be so incredibly self-centered to convince ourselves that every inch of this planet is merely here to serve our singular species only makes me want to fight harder for the others we are very quickly killing.

I’ve been fundraising like crazy for the upcoming trip – selling palm oil-free chocolates, running movie nights and chatting to various local magazines to get the word out. I’ve discovered that so many people want to help – often they are held back because they don’t have the availability to dedicate themselves to a project like this, and it’s been wonderful being able to talk to so many people about the good conservation work that is going on out there. In a lot of discussions I’ve had it’s become apparent that while many people know orangutans are in trouble, they weren’t quite aware exactly why.

So: palm oil plantations. What’s the big issue? Does an issue even exist?

I’m going to answer that last question with a big: YES. Yes, there is an issue. And it is big. Thousands of football fields a day big – that’s an incredibly general idea of how much frequent deforestation potentially occurs to make way for this particular oil.

Palm oil is the edible vegetable oil extracted from palm fruit which grows on the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). This palm tree is a highly efficient oil producer – it bears fruit year-round, requires less land than many other oil producers, and it grows amazingly well in areas of high-heat and high-rainfall (such as – you got it – Borneo). Palm oil itself has become a greatly desired ingredient for many household products (from food to cleaning supplies to cosmetics to bath products) due to its versatility. Food manufacturers in particular favour it because it is stable at high temperatures and is high in saturated fats (as opposed to trans fats). Palm oil is so popular that it is contained in about half of all packaged food products globally. In New Zealand it is estimated to be an ingredient in at least one of ten supermarket products. This can be hard to tell as manufacturers do not currently have to label palm oil on their packaging – it often comes under the guise of general “vegetable oil”.

Indonesia and Malaysia are the two largest cultivators of palm oil. Every single day virgin rainforests are being cleared in order to set up plantations for these palm trees. There is other space available (e.g. unused land from previous agricultural ventures) but virgin rainforest is an attractive option because timber from felled trees can be sold for profit. Rainforest is also cleared by burning – this is meant to be a controlled and isolated method, but it doesn’t always remain that way. And, of course, the ‘controlled’ burns bring casualties – orangutans and thousands of other animal species are caught up in these blazes. These fires have also contributed to Indonesia being one of the worst greenhouse gas emitters on the planet. The negative impact of this unsustainable industry is devastating and irreparable.
Indigenous peoples are also affected by the palm oil trade. Palm oil manufacturers will often say the introduction of plantations brings strength to local economies, however, in reality the replicated results are communities that have had their lives completely changed and which are suddenly dependent on the palm oil market’s success. Native inhabited, valued land is overhauled for transformations, and people are usually left little choice but to work the plantations for pittance. Workers do include children.

This industry is incredibly unsustainable and damaging – yet the trade is lucrative and the demand is high, so it is seemingly unstoppable. Most consumers contribute in some way to this trade – every time we quickly pop in to the supermarket to pick up a few basic items, it is highly likely that we are supporting this unbelievable environmental impact and species decline. A high number of our favourite multi-national companies are allies of the palm oil trade, as are many of our treasured local brands.

To show that the big-spending palm oil customers do care about the environment, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was created in 2004. This collaboration (between palm oil manufacturers, their customers and some NGOs such as WWF) works to increase the amount of sustainable palm oil produced – defined by them as “environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, legal and economically viable”. 40 million tonnes of palm oil is produced per year – this industry-led group said that by 2009 1.5 million tonnes of this palm oil was sourced via sustainable means (according to their definition). That’s just 4% of what is globally produced. Here’s an RSPO fact sheet if you want to check out some of their distributed information.

If you hadn’t picked up on it, I’m hinting here that the RSPO really isn’t as wonderful as they make out to be. For one, it’s industry-led, not independent, so has a high bias towards keeping palm oil production up. While products containing palm oil endorsed by the RSPO are most likely more sustainable than products that aren’t, purchasing them still supports the demand for this vegetable oil no matter its source. One thing we can do as consumers is recognise that every product we buy is supporting the demand for what goes in to them – by making a conscious decision to buy palm oil-free, we are not adding to that demand.
It’s certainly not easy to do this – as I said, in New Zealand (and countless other countries, no doubt) it is not a legal requirement to label the type of vegetable oil used in a particular product. I encourage people to contact companies and ask them outright if their products contain palm oil. The more people show they care, the more seriously this sort of thing will be taken.
The Auckland Zoo has a few handy resources on their website for those in New Zealand – check out their palm oil-free shopping guide. Borneo Orangutan Survival Australia also have a guide up on their website, and for those in the UK Ethical Consumer magazine have a guide on their site too.

In a few weeks I will be writing from Borneo where I’ll be able to share some first-hand stories about the devastation these palm oil plantations can wreak. It doesn’t hurt us to be conscious consumers – it may take a little (sometimes a lot) of effort, but we are living in a time where convenience seems to outweigh the greater good. I admire those who take the time to remember that their individual choices do make a difference – great or small, they do matter.


Say No to Palm Oil
Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
Auckland Zoo – palm oil information (NZ)
Borneo Orangutan Survival Australia (AUS)
Ethical Consumer (UK)