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Last Stand of the Orangutan

Oil Palm Plantations


Large areas of Indonesian and Malaysian forest have been converted to oil palm plantations, in which multinational networks are also implicated. The cheap vegetable oil is becoming increasingly popular, because, despite being high in saturated fats, it is an alternative to trans fats, which are more closely associated with heart disease, and increasingly being banned in Western countries.  It is stable at high temperatures, making it very popular with food manufacturers. Already, it is found in one in ten supermarket products, including margarine, baked goods, sweets, detergents and lipsticks.

There is also an increasing market for vegetable oil as a renewable fuel (biofuel), in response to the need to reduce global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. In Europe, this market was stimulated by the Biofuels Directive of 2003, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels. This directive promotes the use of renewable fuels for transport.  Palm oil is currently considered the most productive source of biodiesel fuel.

Palm oil and palm kernel oil now make up one of the largest shares of global vegetable oil supply. Indonesia and Malaysia account for 83% of the global production of palm oil. Several African countries are also developing palm plantations to meet the expected biofuel demand. Experiences from Indonesia in improving environmental management may therefore be relevant to the sustainable development of oil palm plantations in other countries.

Today, the rapid increase in plantation acreage is one of the greatest threats to orangutans and the forests on which they depend. In Malaysia and Indonesia, it is now the primary cause of permanent rainforest loss. The huge demand for this versatile product makes it very difficult to curb the spread of plantations. Palms tend to be planted on newly-cleared forest land, rather than abandoned agricultural land, despite the availability of large amounts of suitable cleared areas. As palms do not begin to produce a crop for five years after the area is planted, the ability to sell the timber to subsidize these first non-productive years is attractive. Between 1967 and 2000, the total oil palm area in Indonesia grew from less than 2 000 km2 to over 30 000 km2 (FWI/GWF 2002)]. The demand for palm oil is expected to double this area by 2020, which implies the annual conversion of another 30 000 km2 of forest.

The ongoing conversion of tropical rainforest for biofuel production has been a cause of concern for conservationists (Buckland 2005). But new analysis shows that CO2 emissions from conversion of peat swamp forest in particular are far greater than gains from substitution of fossil fuels with palm oil (Hooijer et al. 2006). The land is drained, the trees are cut, and the peat soil that has built up over thousands of years breaks down. When fire used to clear forests for biofuel spreads into additional forest land, even more CO2 is released. While fire fighting and emergency measures are helpful in the short-term, long-term change in the management of peatlands in Indonesia is required if the CO2 is to remain stored in peatlands.

Figure 17: Deforestation and plantation development in western Borneo.

Ironically, in the desire to cut CO2 emissions, western markets are driving ecosystem destruction and producing vast and significant CO2 emissions through forest burning and peat swamp drainage. The most effective measure to achieve this is conservation of remaining peatland forests, alongside rehabilitation of degraded peatlands and improved management of plantations and agricultural areas (Hooijer et al. 2006).

There are signs that the world is waking up to this issue. While no certification mechanism yet exists to identify sustainably-produced palm oil, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has been set up to bring the commercial sector together with conservation organisations, civil society groups, governments and other stakeholders. So far it has devised Principles and Criteria for sustainable palm oil production (RSPO 2006), and a broad code of conduct for members. In late 2006, there were some signs of response in the energy industry. The Dutch power company Essent has pledged to stop using palm oil (Wetlands International 2006), and one British power company in the UK that was testing the use of palm oil has dropped its plans. But the legal and illegal spread of oil palm plantations, and development of biodiesel refineries, continues.

Plantation development in Ketapang

In Ketapang regency (kabupaten), on the south coast of western Kalimantan, there are ten large oil palm companies operating, mainly the southern part of the regency (Dinas Perkebunan pers. comm.). Eight of these companies will soon be operating around Gunung Palung National Park. The planned oil palm plantations will be developed on various habitats, such as logged over areas and peat swamp forest. These companies have been granted permission from the Ketapang regency since 2004. The oil palm plantations may increase human-orangutan conflict, locust plagues, river pollution levels and the risk of flooding.

Human – orangutan conflicts are reportedly widespread. As forests are cleared for plantations, confused orangutans can be found wandering in the newly planted areas that used to form part of their range. An adult orangutan can be intimidating to humans, so it is common for them to be killed by plantation workers. With their habitat gone, hungry orangutans will turn their attention to the young palm trees, where they can cause considerable damage, thus exacerbating the conflict.

“There’s human – orangutan conflict indications in Nanga Tayap district. According to local people and workers, there were two orangutans shot last year because they entered the nursery area. The company also pays local hunters to kill sun bears and wild pigs that enter the plantation area.”