Palm Oil Kills Orangutans, but Can the Industry Help Save the Great Apes?

As palm oil plantations spread to Africa, a new report from the United Nations says palm oil is here to stay and boycotts don’t work.
(Photo: Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images)
Nov 14, 2016· 3 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Well, here’s a paradox: Palm oil plantations are notorious for destroying orangutan habitat on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra and pushing the animals to extinction. But the cooperation of the palm oil industry may be needed if there’s hope to prevent the same thing from happening to other great ape species, according to a new report.

Palm oil is a cheap ingredient used in everything from food to cosmetics to biofuels. The rapid growth of the industry in Southeast Asia has been linked to deforestation and the critical endangerment of orangutan species. Now the industry is spreading to Africa, where it threatens to do the same thing to gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos.

“It took 30 years for palm oil to really embed itself in Southeast Asia,” said Doug Cress, program coordinator for the Great Apes Survival Partnership, a United Nations program. “It will take half that time in Africa. We’ve got to move quickly or we’ll lose a lot of important species.”

A new report from GRASP called Palm Oil Paradox argues that one of the keys to saving the world’s great ape species—two-thirds of which are critically endangered—is to enlist the aid of the most environmentally responsible companies in the $62 billion–a–year palm oil industry. Among the report’s recommendations are setting aside priority ape conservation sites called “no-go” zones and placing certified sustainable palm oil plantations right up against great ape habitats so the companies can safeguard their neighboring apes.

Cress acknowledged that this is “radical” thinking, but he said it stems from an important question: “How do we make the palm oil industry our allies? These are major corporations with billions of dollars at stake.”

That’s vital, he said, because “nothing we’re doing today works. If it’s just a question of saying no to palm oil and boycotting it, then why are all of the orangutans critically endangered? This isn’t working, so let’s try something different.”

The report also calls for more participation from conservationists. “We are instructing our people on the conservation side to get in on day one on the planning process,” Cress said. “Make yourself part of the conversation. Don’t wait until it’s already been allocated and developed to suddenly complain. You’ve got to get upstream.”

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Cress said the information learned during the two years it took to develop the report highlighted how critical the issue will become in Africa. The researchers found that the sites most suitable for growing oil palm overlaid almost exactly with great ape habitat. For example, about 98 percent of bonobo habitat is also perfect for growing oil palm. “That just horrified us,” he said. “They’re square in the firing line.”

One of the editors of the report, biologist and orangutan researcher Serge Wich, said the lessons learned about what has worked and not worked in Southeast Asia should be put into practice in Africa while there’s still time. “With industrial oil palm development in Africa still being relatively small, this is the time to discuss with all the relevant stakeholders how we can balance conservation and oil palm development,” he said.

One of the biggest goals identified in the report is the expansion of the market for certified sustainable palm oil. Only about 20 percent of palm oil is sustainably sourced, according to researchers. But half of that palm oil fails to sell at the higher prices certified products are supposed to attract. Instead, it gets folded back into the regular supply chain and sold at a lower price.

“We have to create more consumer demand for sustainable palm oil,” Cress said. “We need to make sure people know that they can ask for it.” He recommended searching products for the Green Palm logo, established by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, although he said it has not yet reached deep market penetration. “It’s just not ubiquitous enough yet,” he said.

Wich said consumers can take another step. “Let companies know you decided not to buy a product from them because it has not been certified,” he said, noting that if companies know they are losing customers, they may embrace more responsible approaches to palm oil.

The report, which was released at last week’s RSPO meeting in Bangkok, coincided with criticism of the industry group. Environmental groups complained that a palm oil company that had lost its certification for reportedly illegally chopping down rainforests in Indonesia regained its certification too quickly and without on-the-ground oversight. Meanwhile, a smoky haze—blamed on illegal fires aimed at clearing land for palm oil plantations—is blanketing Indonesia and nearby Singapore.

Could Africa suffer a similar fate without the cooperation of the industry’s better-behaved players? Cress acknowledged fear for the future but said the two sides need to work together to save great apes. “We’re asking our community to trust another community that there’s not a tremendous amount of mutual faith right now,” he said. “We’re going to have to find some. We can’t keep repeating these same old equations and hoping for something different. We don’t have the luxury of decades. We have the luxury of years. We really have to make this happen soon.”