How orangutans help save the rainforests.

Do you think the ‘palm oil’ is a good oil rather than other fats? Think it again, and listen to Joanna Blythman‘s voice.


Ethical shoppers live with the knowledge that some of the foods they buy could be fuelling environmental destruction and the exploitation of people at the other side of the world. So they switch to fair trade or support a boycott, never entirely convinced that this is making any difference on the ground. But every now and then, a particularly effective campaign of action gets astonishing results back in the country in question. The most striking example in recent years has been led by Friends of the Earth.

For decades, Friends of the Earth in the UK had been campaigning to stop the destruction of tropical rainforests, but its emphasis had been on deforestation caused by the paper industry. Then FoE in Indonesia alerted it to the fact that the clearing of forests to make way for food-oil-producing palms was now a bigger threat – causing unprecedented environmental damage and driving indigenous people off their land to make way for this new gold rush crop.

Friends of the Earth’s campaigner Ed Matthew faced the problem that palm oil, the cheapest oil available to food manufacturers, is rarely listed as an ingredient on food labels, more often being subsumed under the heading of vegetable oil, Yet consumers were indirectly accomplices to tropical-forest destruction because they were buying this oil unwittingly in as many as one in 10 products on supermarket shelves – in everything from crisps and instant soup to margarine and chocolate. But how do you focus public attention on a mystery ingredient that you cannot see, smell or feel ?

In 2004, FoE decided the answer was a troop of apes, an ambitious goal considering its allocation of just one full-time campaigner and a budget of 8000 Pounds. Palm-oil plantations were wiping out the habitat of the orangutan, so FoE decided to use this iconic endangered primate as an emotive example of a species that could disappear entirely if unbridled conversion of primary forest to palm-oil plantation was allowed to continue. The only orangutans now left in the world live in Borneo and Sumatra, where the lowland peat forests that sustain them are being rapidly destroyed in a race between Malaysia and Indonesia to become the world’s biggest supplier of palm oil. Wildlife groups warn that, without urgent intervention, the palm-oil trade will make the species extinct within 12 years.

A great hairy ape was the perfect pin-up. Within two years, FoE had made astonishing progress. In 2005, the Indonesia government had announced its plan to develop a palm-oil fence running the length of the Malaysia-Indonesia border in Borneo. This mega-plantation-which would have been the world’s biggest and most destructive agricultural project- would have sounded the death knell for the remaining orangutans on the island. By 2006, embarrassed by the coverage of the scheme, the Indonesian government abandoned its plans.

This international reaction had been triggered by campaigning in the UK where FoE turned its attention to the supermarkets, exposing how none of them had a clue where their palm oil was coming from. It organized demonstrations outside stores, urging supermarkets to join a Roundtable on Sustainable Oil Palm. At first they refused, but within months they changed their tune. ‘Their language changed from, “we don’t see the point” to, “we think it is incredibly important”.’says Matthew. Now food retailers, manufacturers and even palm-oil-producing companies are currently working with environmentalists on a scheme for certifying sustainable palm oil, so that buyers can be sure they are not aiding and abetting rainforest destruction. The first of this certified oil should be on the market in a year’s time. Clearer labeling will also mean that companies cannot hide behind a generic label because all vegetable oil will need to state its source.

So are the orangutans safe? Unfortunately not. Tow new developments make palm-oil production even more attractive. Being cheap and easy to grow, palm-oil is a perfect crop for biofuels, and the urgent need to find alternatives to petrol and diesel is being used as a justification for more palm-oil expansion. So while health campaigners have largely succeeded in getting companies to remove artery-clogging transfats from their foods, palm oil is more in demand than ever as a cheap, liquid replacement. So at this point in the battle it may be one up for the orangutans, but there are no grounds for complacency. Friends of the Earth’s palm oil campaign continues. OFM


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