It’s empowering to know that looking out for palm oil on a label in a supermarket can improve the habitat of an orang-utan thousands of miles away.
In August this year an oranguutan wandered into an Indonesian village and climbed up a tree. Fearing he would eat the tree’s fruit, locals attempted to smoke him out, but instead set him on fire. Although he was rescued and treated, his burns, combined with his state of malnourishment, proved too much and he later died.
The sight of scared, malnourished and homeless orangutans is nothing new for Dr Ian Singleton, the director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), a collaborative programme between NGOs and the Indonesian government working for the survival of orangutans in Sumatra.
“If Indonesia was able to enforce its existing laws about wildlife and the operational procedures of palm oil companies, 80 to 90 per cent of our job as conservationists would already be done. But they’re not being enforced because of corruption – pure and simple,” he says.
Of particular concern is the area of Tripa. The rainforest-covered land is one of three remaining coastal areas in Aceh that are home to the highest density of orang-utans in the world, yet logging and illegal fires have destroyed two- thirds of Tripa’s forests. SOCP estimates there are only 200 orang-utans left at Rawa Tripa areas, down from nearly 2000 in 1990.
In June this year, fires vast enough to be picked up by satellites swept through Tripa, the peat swamp forest illegally set ablaze by palm oil companies wanting to clear land for plantations.
What makes this particularly frustrating for Singleton is that Tripa sits within the protected Leuser Ecosystem. The area has been declared off-limits to development by the Indonesian President’s moratorium on deforestation, which was signed in 2011 in conjunction with the Norwegian Government in a bid to reduce Indonesia’s carbon emissions.
When it comes to the illegal allocation of plantation permits, Singleton apportions much of the blame on Indonesian brokers, who he describes as the kind of people powerful enough to “change the head of the police.”
“These filthy rich brokers make all the money out of it. They’re the ones selling the country’s assets to these multinational companies.”
Corruption at every level, says Singleton, is rife and one of the biggest challenges SOCP has to contend with. He cites the Ministry of Forestry as a prime example. It serves two functions: to protect the State’s forest and to maximise revenue. The department charged with the latter is paid really well, meanwhile the department for the former — the one charged with protecting forests and wildlife — is “underpaid, under trained, under motivated and under funded.”
“Conservation staff are paid so poorly, it’s ridiculous — of course they’re going to accept bribes.”
In Malaysia and Indonesia, 4.5 million people earn a living from palm oil. But put the economic argument to Singleton and he’s quick to shoot it down
“The argument that these plantations alleviate poverty is complete nonsense,” he says. “Instead they create poverty in areas where it never existed before.”
He says the salaries paid by palm oil companies are so low the local people don’t want to work on the plantations and end up being evicted from their land.
“Not only that, they also lose all their resources. The local people of that area are not farmers, they’re people who have caught wild fish from the swamps and rivers for generations.”
Labour requirements are instead met by poverty-stricken people from offshore islands who are “willing to come over and work in these terrible barrack conditions for peanuts.”
It’s an industry which, with its focus on short-term economic gain, negates to acknowledge the bigger picture. As well as releasing massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, the drying of peat land for plantations causes it to subside, dropping about 2.5 meters over 25 years, the length of one palm oil production cycle.
There are, however, pockets of good news. A lawsuit against palm oil company PT Kallista Alam and the former governor of Aceh who granted the company a permit for its 1600-hectare palm oil plantation in a protected area, proved successful in September this year when the Medan State Administrative Court ordered the permit be revoked.
Elsewhere, Singleton is grateful for the greater transparency brought about by the internet.
“Companies are just beginning to realise that everything they do can be seen, measured, quantified and shared around the world 15 times before breakfast.”
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Above: Dr Ian Singleton at the Janthro centre where orang-utans are rehabilitated and then released into Pinus Janthro Nature Reserve, Aceh province.