Mon­key busi­ness

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.

Element - - The Cuase - By Deirdre Robert

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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er and en­ter the draw. Top: Orang-utans are in­creas­ingly un­der threat.

Above: Dr Ian Sin­gle­ton at the Jan­thro cen­tre where orang-utans are re­ha­bil­i­tated and then re­leased into Pi­nus Jan­thro Na­ture Re­serve, Aceh prov­ince.

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