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Rhett A. Butler

Rhett A. Butler

Palm oil both a leading threat to orangutans and a key source of jobs in Sumatra by Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com

An interview about orangutan conservation and the complexities of palm oil  by Rhett A. Butler with Panut Hadisiswoyo and David Dellatore of the Orangutan Information Centre and Helen Buckland of the Sumatran Orangutan Society.

Of the world’s two species of orangutan, a great ape that shares 96 percent of man’s genetic makeup, the Sumatran orangutan is considerably more endangered than its cousin in Borneo. Today there are believed to be fewer than 7,000 Sumatran orangutans in the wild, a consequence of the wildlife trade, hunting, and accelerating destruction of their native forest habitat by loggers, small-scale farmers, and agribusiness.

Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra is one of the last strongholds for the species, serving as a refuge among paper pulp concessions and rubber and oil palm plantations. While orangutans are relatively well protected in areas around tourist centers, they are affected by poorly regulated interactions with tourists, which have increased the risk of disease and resulted in high mortality rates among infants near tourist centers like Bukit Lawang. Further, orangutans that range outside the park or live in remote areas or on its margins face conflicts with developers, including loggers, who may or may not know about the existence of the park, and plantation workers, who may kill any orangutans they encounter in the fields.

Working to improve the fate of orangutans that find their way into plantations and unprotected community areas is the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), a local NGO that collaborates with the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS). Founded by Panut Hadisiswoyo, OIC runs outreach and education programs to help local people better co-exist with orangutans and the park. Its “OrangUvan,” a bus equipped with a library and a mobile cinema, regularly visits villages to make children and adults aware of conservation efforts and the importance of protecting forests. OIC also operates tree nurseries and replanting programs to help restore livelihoods where unsustainable logging and environmental degradation have pushed villagers to illegally cut timber from the national park. Further, OIC is preparing the next generation of conservationists and ecotourism guides, running how-to workshops on surveying forest conditions and orangutan density, boat handling, nature photography, composting and organic farming, and responsible nature guiding (that doesn’t harm orangutans or the environment). In conjunction with the Orang Utan Republik Foundation, OIC runs a scholarship program for Indonesian University students that aims to help enable them become key members of the conservation movement in Sumatra and inspire others to care for nature and their environment.

OIC is also working to engage the palm oil industry, a challenge since oil palm expansion is both a leading driver of deforestation and an important source of jobs in the region. While many large palm oil companies are eager to shed the perception that they are a threat to orangutans, plantation developers continue to drive destruction of important orangutan habitat, especially in unprotected areas. Deforestation, as well as drainage of carbon-dense peatlands, is also a huge source of greenhouse gas emissions, undermining claims that palm oil is necessarily a “green” source of fuel and vegetable oil. Indeed, palm oil produced on newly deforested lands is actually the opposite—a larger source of carbon dioxide than conventional fossil fuels. But demonizing all palm oil is neither productive nor fair. Oil palm is the world’s highest yielding oilseed, generating substantially more vegetable oil per unit of land than soy, rapeseed/canola, or corn. Further, the crop has become an important source of income in much of rural Sumatra, while serving as an inexpensive foodstuff for local people and the world.

Is there a way to balance palm oil production and environmental aims? Some environment groups are advocating a ban on all palm oil, but given rising demand for edible oils, especially in China and India, this is an unlikely solution. Other groups, including SOS and OIC, are hopeful that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a multi-stakeholder body devising a certification standard that aims to improve the environmental performance of palm oil production, could be the path forward, provided the scheme is credible. But credibility is elusive when RSPO members (whom are not necessarily certified palm oil producers; they are only required to pay a membership fee to be part of RSPO) are found to be attempting to game the system, breaking rules and refusing third-party compliance monitoring. Such practices risk turning RSPO into little more than another greenwashing initiative, a concern that has already turned away some potential supporters, including a few major buyers of palm oil who are now seeking other vegetable oil options. Still, OIC believes that in the end a credible RSPO will be better for orangutans and better for business than the alternative—continued destruction of tropical forests and peatlands.

In a series of interviews conducted in Medan and Bukit Lawang (Sumatra) and via e-mail, Panut Hadisiswoyo and David Dellatore of OIC, and Helen Buckland, UK Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Society, talked about their efforts to save the world’s rarest orangutan species as well as the “palm oil paradox.”

You can read the complete interview on mongabay.com website:

Palm oil both a leading threat to orangutans and a key source of jobs in Sumatra

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