It’s getting serious now. Experts are predicting that orangutans could be extinct within 10 years.
The main reason behind their demise is the destruction of rain forests, their natural habitat, to make way for palm oil plantations.
Palm oil—a vegetable oil obtained from the fruit of the African oil palm tree—is the most widely produced edible oil in the world, being used in many processed foodstuffs, household and personal care products.
It’s also being used in the development of bio-fuel alternatives to fossil fuels. However, the destruction of rain forests increases greenhouse gas levels, thereby neutralizing (or negating) any potential benefits of using palm oil as a biofuel.
The oil palm tree is not native to the rain forest, but is planted as an agricultural crop. And although palm oil has the potential to be produced in a more sustainable manner (given an abundance of degraded land that could be used for the plantations) for the most part, it’s being produced unsustainably.
While forest fires do occur naturally, many are started illegally, and afterwards plantations move in and farm the land. Orangutans lives are lost directly to the fires, but it is the ever decreasing habitat that is causing them (along with tigers, elephants and other species) to die out.
Orangutan populations are now at a critically low level, and they have an extremely slow reproduction rate, giving birth only once every six to 10 years. Given the world’s insatiable demand for palm oil, the orangutan’s best hope for survival is a dramatic reduction in unsustainably produced products.
What does sustainable palm oil production look like?
The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a non-profit organization seeking to redress the harmful practices associated with palm oil production. Its membership includes social and environmental organizations, along with companies involved in every stage of the farming, processing and retailing of palm oil products.
“The RSPO has developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). When they are properly applied, these criteria can help to minimize the negative impact of palm oil cultivation on the environment and communities in palm oil-producing regions.”
In order to qualify for certification, companies must have their land assessed for high value conservation, ensuring that they are not clearing the habitats of protected species. Additionally, they are required to monitor greenhouse gas emissions, dispose waste matter responsibly, and use efficient, sustainable methods in growing and replacing the trees.
Sadly, as yet, membership is voluntary rather than obligatory. Therefore, as consumers, we have our own role to play in ensuring that palm oil production moves ever closer to sustainable practices.
Here’s the uncomfortable truth: we may not be the ones who are burning the orangutan’s habitats and causing them to starve to death. But we are part of the chain that culminates in that outcome.
Money is the driving force behind their imminent demise. And that is also where our power lies to save them.
We can withhold our money from producers whose ethics don’t align with ours.
Of course, that means we need to educate ourselves a bit more around sustainable palm oil products—and then buying products only from certified companies.
Simply download to your phone and while shopping, check the list of certified products alphabetically. They are given traffic-light color codes for “excellent,” “good” and “needs improvement”. If the product you’re checking isn’t listed at all, best to put it back on the shelf and choose another.
Ultimately, it will be a bottom-up approach that effects real and lasting change. As well voting with our wallets, we also need to vote with the ballot box, pushing for production to be legally regulated, rather than voluntarily—and for unsustainable practices to be completely outlawed.
But the wheels of politics and administration turn slowly. So voting with our wallets is where we can have a more immediate and pressing effect. Shopping with awareness and creating a deafening demand for palm oil to be sustainably produced will make it more attractive—essential even—for producers to behave responsibly.
Because only when the demand dwindles to a level where it’s no longer profitable to continue burning the orangutan’s natural habitat, will that practice be stopped.
When this beautiful species is gone forever, we will all have their blood on our hands—unless we have made a deliberate effort to reduce the demand for palm oil products.
“When you know better, you do better.” ~ Maya Angelou
Author: Hilda Carroll
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina