Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil, a cheap and widely pervasive commodity used to produce many everyday household items we all consume, such as toiletries, detergents and food products. It’s in shampoo, soap, cosmetics, biscuits, chocolate, peanut butter and much more. The demand for palm oil remains high, despite the increased awareness of its damage to the environment and impact on wildlife. It is also synonymous with the orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra – and for all the wrong reasons.
Orangutan habitat in Borneo has been slashed by 80% in the last 30 years due primarily to oil palm expansion, contributing to the death of approximately 2,000-3,000 orangutans each year who are left without a home, food and water. More than 70% of orangutans live in unprotected areas where there is palm oil, logging and mining.
The devastation is not just felt by wildlife. The rise of logging and oil palm plantations has led to the abuse of many local communities. The slash and burn technique used to clear forests produces fumes that leave villages close by engulfed with pollutants; in some sites, levels of three times the amount considered hazardous for humans and animals have been found.
There is likely to always be a global demand for palm oil, but as consumers, we can influence that demand by not buying the products that contain it. There are alternatives and those that use sustainable palm oil instead. The crisis facing orangutans is urgent, but there are still many people unaware of just how many products contain palm oil and therefore the consequences of their choices.
It is unlikely that a boycott of palm oil will prevent the decline in the orangutan population as alternative oil crops are less productive and therefore require extra land, consequently increasing deforestation.
Sustainable palm oil would instead ensure that producers adhere to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s stringent policies in order to achieve accreditation. However, the complex web of local and international companies involved in the production of these goods means that ensuring the sustainability of ethical, conflict-free production of palm oil through the supply chain is a difficult task.
But, that said, companies, societies and individuals have the power and the responsibility to demand sustainable, conflict-free palm oil and hold accountable those who produce, process and peddle it. As an individual, you can ask companies to commit to only sourcing certified sustainable palm oil and where they can't do this, then remove the product completely.
You can also help by supporting our campaign, Orangutans on the Brink, by highlighting the orangutans plight on social media, donating or adopting Timtom the orangutan. The Born Free-supported Orangutan Foundation in Indonesia Borneo rescues orangutans in need and works with local communities and companies to conserve wild orangutans and their natural habitat.
The situation for orangutans really is critical. But with your help, we can give them a better future.
Images © Orangutan Foundation