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Palm Oil and the Orangutan: What You Need to Know

Orangutan and Palm Oil: What You Need to Know

I love orangutans. They are so impressive, living high up in the treetops, and caring so gently for their young. In recent years, however, they have become the face of the palm oil industry’s destruction. It’s heartbreaking, really.

The numbers are so shocking. Between 1992 and 2000, Sumatran orangutan numbers declined by more than 50 percent. According to WWF, there are fewer than 7,500 of them left in the wild. In Borneo, those numbers have dropped nearly 43 percent, to approximately 100,000. Every year, at least 2,000 to 3,000 of these “forest people” as their name translates to, are killed by the palm oil industry.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is ubiquitous in the food and cosmetics industry. It’s in about half of all consumer goods products—everything from baked goods and snacks to soaps and cosmetics. Each person on average uses more than 17 pounds of palm oil a year. Its popularity is owed to it being incredibly adept: it can be used in frying without spoiling, and brands find it ideal in long-lasting shelf-stable foods. It’s also what makes most shampoos, detergents, and soaps foamy. And it’s so much cheaper compared to other ingredients that the world is hooked on the stuff.

But while the cost of palm oil may be cheap, the price we pay is astounding. To grow palm oil—it comes from a specific type of palm tree—precious tropical rainforests across Malaysia and Indonesia are razed for these palm tree plantations; 85 percent of the world’s palm oil is produced in these two countries. Palm oil plantations now make up more than 10 percent of all cropland on the planet.

Between 1995 and 2015, the amount of palm oil produced quadrupled to more than 62 million tonnes; the number is expected to quadruple again by 2050. 

Photo by Jonathan Lampel on Unsplash

As I reported in 2017, the palm oil industry has immense impacts on deforestation, clearing of peatlands (carbon-rich swamps), habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty, and indigenous rights abuses. The large-scale deforestation is equivalent to at least 300 football fields per hour, and is pushing many species to extinction. Beyond the orangutan, there are fewer than 400 Sumatra Tigers and less than 1,500 Bornean Pygmy Elephants left in the wild.

Preserving the rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia is critical. And the carbon-rich peatlands are critical, too. They can sequester 18-23 times more carbon than the forests; Southeast Asia’s peatlands store roughly the same amount of carbon as the Amazon rainforest (before it became a carbon emitter).

The once-pervasive forests of southeast Asia are now being burned and cut down at alarming rates. At its highest point, according to Our World In Data research, between 2008-2009 40 percent of Indonesia’s deforestation was due to palm oil production. That number has dropped, but it’s still a significant driver of forest loss. Recent best estimates put it at 23 percent of forest loss.
According to the Rainforest Action Network, deforestation causes 80 percent of Indonesia’s CO2 emissions, making the tropical nation the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Forest loss is a big contributor to global warming as greenhouse gases are emitted during the burning of forest land. This is among the top sources of GHG emissions for all of Indonesia, a country nearly as populous as the U.S.

Forests provide oxygen, sequester carbon, and are home to plant medicines widely known and those still undiscovered. They’re home to all kinds of insects and animals, too. And in the case of these Southeast Asian forests, they’re home to a number of threatened or endangered species like the Sumatran tigers and rhino. And then, of course, there’s the orangutan. 

Saving the Orangutan

The orangutan is a member of the great ape family—there are a few types of orangutans across the region, and they are the only great apes in Asia. They’re the largest arboreal mammals, too, rarely descending from their treetop homes. All orangutans are listed as critically endangered and their primary threat is human production of palm oil.

Some companies are working to protect the Southeast Asian forests and bring awareness to the plight of the orangutan and the problems with palm. Vegan soapmaker Dr. Bronner’s has been sourcing organic and Fair Trade palm oil from Ghana for years. “Any crop can be grown sustainably or unsustainably, and palm is no exception,” David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s said in a statement on the company’s website. They’re really committed to the cause, and make a good point about sourcing responsible palm oil instead of another type of oil entirely.

“Some large retailers have opted out of products using palm oil altogether but this simply shifts the reliance on to other vegetable oils, other farming communities, and other endangered species. For brands like Dr. Bronner’s, the key is not to renounce the use of palm oil altogether, but to seek sustainable, organic, and fair trade ways of sourcing palm oil.” Bronner’s only sources ethical palm oil, working with 500 farmers using regenerative and organic agricultural practices–not cutting down forests!

Photo by Dimitry B on Unsplash

What You Can Do

There’s no better time to pledge your support, make a donation, or simply just share a message about these important animals and the threat to their homes and their future.

Things you can do right now: “Adopt” an orangutan and help provide vital care and resources to those on the ground fighting to protect their homes.

Familiarize yourself with all of the names for palm oil so you can better spot it on labels. This list can help.

And when shopping, look for brands that highlight ethical and sustainable palm oil options, such as those bearing the trademark label from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (And I’m so proud of mykind Organics for sourcing the small amount of palm oil used in our vitamins from an RSPO member). You can search all of the companies with the label here.

Visit the Orangutan Day webpage to learn more. 

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