Palm oil is killing orangutans

November 20, 2020   ·   0 Comments

By Martina Rowley

Did you know that orangutans, those slightly comical looking orange apes, share 97% of our human DNA? That makes them second only to chimpanzees. They are not only intelligent but also inquisitive, they smile, show empathy and even ‘laugh’ when they are tickled. They have a life expectancy up to 60 years. Does that not sound like a species worth protecting? 

Sadly, over the last 50 years their habitat has been increasingly encroached upon for timber logging and now deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is the most widely produced vegetable oil because it is cheap to produce, provides a high yield, has a long shelf-life, is cholesterol free (therefore taking over from harmful trans fats) and is used in a wide range of products from foods, to plastics, detergents, shampoos and cosmetics and even as biofuel. And for that, Indonesia’s lush, green rainforests are being slashed and burned, disappearing at the rate of one football pitch every 25 seconds.

As orangutans spend 95% of their lives in the trees, they have nowhere to escape to and in the last 16 years alone, as many as 100,000 Bornean orangutans have died as a result. All three orangutan species—Bornean, Sumatran and the recently discovered Tapanuli—are now on the critically endangered list. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that the population is now less than half of what it was one century ago, with Bornean orangutans numbering around 104,700 (endangered), Sumatran about 7,500 (critically endangered) and Tapanuli with no more than 800 individuals (the most endangered of all great apes).

I was reminded of these statistics and sad state of global affairs through heartbreaking film footage in the CBC Nature of Things’ episode titled She Walks with Apes (find it online on CBC Gem). Amongst others, it features Canadian Biruté Galdikas, a little-known primatologist who studies orangutans and is en par with the famous Jane Goodall (who studied chimpanzees) and Dian Fossey (who studied gorillas), and who together are known as “The Trimates”. Each of these women not only researched but spent decades living amongst and protecting the great apes, which in Fossey’s case got her killed. Galdikas founded an Orangutan Care Centre for orphaned primates in Borneo thirty years ago. The centre currently employs over 130 local staff who take care of 320 orangutan orphans. There are other rescue centres in Indonesia and to date, several hundred animals have been rescued, raised and released back into the rainforests. But their habitats keep shrinking. 

The global demand for palm oil is driving this rainforest destruction, with demand having increased six-fold since 1990. The Indonesian government boasts of a projected increase in palm oil production from 36.5 million tonnes in 2017 to over 42 million tonnes by 2020. Not only orangutans are affected, so are Sumatran elephants and rhinos, as well as humans who are suffering from land grabbing, worker exploitation and child labour. And decades of deforestation have also created ideal conditions for wide-sweeping forest and peatland fires. 

Why we should care: Orangutans, as one of the great apes, are certainly a species worth saving and they are already on the endangered list. Also, the far-reaching effects of tropical deforestation affect everyone around the world, as cutting down this old forest accounts for 12% of global carbon emissions. Back in 2015, forest fires covered the 5,000km length of Indonesia. Within just three weeks, those fires released more carbon dioxide than the annual emissions of Germany. Such a massive CO2 release makes global warming even worse. 

Within the European Union, palm oil in food may no longer be described as vegetable oil and must be clearly labelled but there is no such law for personal care products like soap, shampoo and cosmetics. On a grander scale, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)—an industry body supposed to ensure its companies trade only in sustainable oil—is failing. Greenpeace exposed massive rainforest destruction in Papua allegedly caused by palm oil companies that are subsidiaries of an RSPO member, which sells to the big multinationals including Unilever, Nestlé, Pepsico and Mars (although Mars does claim some products with sustainable palm oil). Other food and supermarket chains have so far made many empty promises. And this is despite some proud should-slapping when in 2017 the RSPO formed the North American Sustainable Palm Oil Network (NASPON) with a goal of making sustainable palm oil the norm. Companies include Kellogg’s, DunkinDonuts, KraftHeinz, Pepsico and others but who knows how well they are really performing. 

What we all can do: To help make a difference, aside from donating towards one of the major non-profit organisations who are fighting to preserve Indonesian rainforests and orangutan habitat, we can choose products made with sustainable palm oil. Through buying more products made with sustainable palm oil, we “vote with our Dollars” and create a bigger market for it, making it more interesting and profitable for the producers to make the switch. The Toronto Zoo points out that it is not necessary or wise to boycott ALL palm oil, because when it is grown and harvested sustainably, it is in fact higher yielding than other oils and therefore environmentally preferable. 

According to the WWF, more than half of U.S. consumer products contain palm oil, from lipstick to soap and shampoo, cookies, peanut butter and pizza dough to ice cream. And as usual, simply looking for the word “palm oil” on an ingredient label will not do; it and its derivative ingredients include names like, e.g. Vegetable Oil, Vegetable Fat, Palm Kernel Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Glyceryl, Palmitic Acid and so on. Instead, look for the sustainable palm oil label (see online what it looks like). 

The Toronto Zoo, who is promoting better practices, has therefore published a brief Orangutan-Friendly Shopping Guide (available on their website), highlighting companies and some of their products who are leaders in using Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) and pushing the industry to comply, as well as listing companies that have made strong commitments and taken positive steps towards a switch. Their list of safer chocolate bars and snacks include: Mars (Twix, 3 Musketeers, M&Ms, Snickers, Dove, Skittles); Hershey’s (Reese’s, Turtles, Whoppers, Twizzlers, Jolly Ranchers); Frito-Lay (Lay’s, Ruffles, SunChips, Tostitos, Cheetos); Quaker; Ferrero; Kraft Heinz; and Lindt & Sprüngli.

With Christmas coming up soon, it seems a good time to update some of our shopping habits again and start looking for that Certified Sustainable Palm Oil label. Check it online so you know what to look for. Good thing for me is that many of my favourite chocolate brands are already on board and Kraft recently released a Hazelnut Spread with Cocoa and “no palm oil”; now I know what I can replace my depleting jar of Nutella with! 

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