Oil palm plantations need to protect orangutans

The shocking image of a burnt orangutan mother and its baby this week really brought it home: All orangutans are Critically Endangered. This used to be the privileged status of just the Sumatran orangutan, but this elite club of species on the verge of extinction will this year be joined by its Bornean cousin.

Critically Endangered for orangutans basically means that the species has declined by more than 20% over the past decade. To put this into a human perspective, the world population would have to plummet from the present 7.4 billion to 5.9 billion in 2025, a loss of 1.5 billion people like you and me. And to make it even clearer, it would mean that out of every five people you know, one would die in the next 10 years. That’s what orangutans are now experiencing.

The threats to orangutans are well known and easy to sum up. First, there is habitat loss, primarily because of plantation development for palm oil, rubber, pulp and paper and coconut, small-scale agriculture, and reckless and illegal burning of land. Secondly, it is outright killing, like the case this week in East Kalimantan. Because both result in the death of legally protected animals, all these activities are utterly illegal according to the grand conservation law No. 5 of 1990.

What is Indonesia doing about it? Pretty much nothing. The authorities have all but given up on law enforcement with regard to the protection of wild orangutans, or captive ones for that matter. Government also happily hands out plantation licenses in the middle of orangutan habitat knowing full well that the presence of plantations is going to more or less wipe out the local orangutan population. I say “more or less”, because there is actually a lot a company can do to prevent orangutan extinction within its plantation areas.

I just returned from an oil palm company in West Kalimantan that has set aside some 30% of its concession for conservation purposes. The company manages these conservation areas admirably well. They got rid of all illegal logging, kept out most fires, and made sure that there was zero orangutan killing within the plantation. That company alone is single-handedly saving some 100­–150 orangutans.

Next door to the company I visited, another company, let’s call them BGA, succeeded in destroying all orangutan habitat in their concession, probably indirectly killing quite a few in the process, while the remaining ones were “rescued” by an orangutan rehabilitation centre. This company is actually member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO, and I am not entirely sure how the word “sustainable” fits in with wiping out local populations of Critically Endangered species. A complaint about BGA was made to RSPO but this did not change things on the ground.

BGA is now working in another concession next door to the previous one. I was overlooking the forests in that second company from a hill top and realized that if again all forest is cut down like the company did before, one hundred or more orangutans will have nowhere to go, and will need to be either rescued or they will die.

Surely, the Indonesian government would not allow that to happen, would they? After all, Indonesia’s previous President signed a ten year commitment to stabilize all wild orangutan populations in the country by 2017, which is in about ten months from now. It seems time for the government to make sure that this oil palm concession does not destroy its orangutan habitat.

It is actually not that hard to make some positive contribution to orangutan conservation. Protecting stands of forests within oil palm concessions, or anywhere for that matter, not only helps orangutans but often has significant financial benefits, such as preventing flooding. For example, a study in Malaysian Borneo, shows that where oil palm is planted in frequently flooded areas or right up onto the river banks, plantings actually cost the companies more money than they earn from the palms. Protecting forests in oil palm concessions often makes both legal and business sense.

All this habitat destruction and killing is happening everywhere in Kalimantan and Sumatra, but neither the national nor the local government is doing much to prevent it. The oft-heard argument is that Indonesia needs oil palm for its development. But this doesn’t mean that laws can simply be ignored and broken—why bother having laws in the first place? For example, the government is legally required to protect deep peat areas and not hand them out for development, as this results in major flooding and large economic and social costs. Similarly, bands of forests on river banks and steep slopes need to be legally protected, and all arson prevented and effectively prosecuted.

If the Indonesian government really is not able (or cannot be bothered?) to enforce its own laws why not drop them altogether? It would be much clearer to everyone if the Indonesian government would simply delist orangutans as a protected species and make it fully legal to shoot, snare, club, or torch them—as is now happening some 1,000–2,000 times per year in Kalimantan alone. Indonesia would then probably need to step back from its international conservation commitments to, for example, the Convention on Biological Diversity. But it would at least clarify the government’s real intentions.

Of course, that is not what we want. Instead, we would like the government to make much better environmental decisions and ensure that its laws and regulations are consistently applied and really do benefit Indonesia economically, socially and environmentally. Rather than the government saying “no” to zero-deforestation, they should embrace it as it is the only way it will deliver on its own sustainable development goals. Laws need be enforced to prevent the allocation of plantation licenses in areas with Critically Endangered wildlife or vital forest ecosystem services. And laws are needed that make companies set aside forests for conservation and protection of those environmental services.

As to BGA, surely as it went through all the efforts of joining RSPO it would not want to be associated with killing large numbers of Critically Endangered animals. So by their own standards, I expect them to work with NGOs, local government and neighboring companies to jointly develop a landscape that protects the remaining orangutans and give them some hope for a brighter future, in line with Indonesia’s long-term commitments to conservation.

The burnt orangutans, by the way, appear to have been unrelated to oil palm. Still, judging social media, the public thinks differently and blames the palm oil industry. It is the destructive, illegally operating companies that give Indonesia’s palm oil industry such a bad international name. It should be the well managed and truly sustainable ones that ultimately make this Indonesian industry look better. There is a lot to gain by Indonesia for cleaning up its conservation mess and better regulate its land use and environmental management.

Erik Meijaard is a Jakarta-based conservation scientist coordinating the Borneo Futures Initiative.