I have been hiking through an oil palm plantation in Borneo for hours but have yet to see a single oil palm. Instead, mahogany and other native tree species tower overhead. Mushrooms, flowers and huge pitcher plants uniquely adapted to the island’s peat swamp forests line my trail. This lush portion of the plantation should be ideal habitat for orangutans. I have not spotted any, but according to Hendriyanto, my guide from the plantation’s conservation team, an estimated 14 of the red apes do indeed live here.
Surveyors came up with that number by counting orangutan nests in this 657-hectare so-called "High Conservation Value" (HCV) enclave within the 18,000-hectare plantation. The population density survey and the HCV set-aside are required of oil palm companies like Hendriyanto's employer, Ketapang-based PT Kayung Agro Lestari (PT KAL), for eco-compliance certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a consortium that has been setting the industry's sustainability standards since 2004.
But one step outside this refuge lies a very different scene: blistering tropical heat and regimented rows of spiky oil palm trees spread over miles of ochre mud that turns to deep, rutted puddles after a drizzle. Borneo's forest-to-plantation ratio has plummeted in recent decades. Satellite data show that the island's forest cover dwindled from 76 percent to a mere 28 percent between 1973 and 2010. Deforestation has only accelerated since then, especially in 2015, when fires smoldered across 1.3 million hectares of peatland for months on end.
From an ape's point of view, the plantation vista presents an uninhabitable hellscape. From an industry standpoint, it is a prospect of burgeoning revenue. Half of the vegetable oil consumed around the world comes from oil palms. According to data from USDA and the World Bank, the global market for palm oil and palm kernels is around $47 billion.
But can the industry maintain that profitability if consumers come to associate palm oil with the rape of the jungle and the imminent extinction of its iconic orangutans? To forestall such a public relations disaster, industry-leading oil palm companies have tried a series of conservation initiatives to show that orangutans and plantations can co-exist—hence the formation of the RSPO, the creation of the HCV enclaves and the relocation of orphaned apes to rehabilitation centers for later reintroduction back to the forest. The latest scheme is to interlink isolated HCV patches with migration "corridors" so that orangutans and other forest-dwelling creatures can disperse in accordance with their natural behaviors.
To implement such measures (and garner some third-party credibility), many companies have partnered with environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). But results have so far been elusive. Part of the problem is a general lack of data. In addition, companies can also ignore or skimp on the NGO recommendations. Compounding matters, the RSPO and its ilk are agonizingly slow at investigating complaints, and their findings are no more than advisory, with no force of law. Moreover, Indonesian licensing laws can undermine conservation by reallocating forest leases of companies that do not exploit their allotted tracts fully or quickly enough. And with the RSPO covering barely a fifth of the world’s palm oil operators, there is always a queue of wildcat planters ready to take up rescinded leases.
Pledging to the Roundtable
Orangutan-friendly forests once provided contiguous habitat for the tree-dwelling apes throughout South and Southeast Asia, from India to China to Indonesia. Human settlement shrank and fragmented the forest range, and with it the orangutan population. According to a 2006 study by Cardiff University molecular ecologists Benoît Goossens and Michael Bruford, there were an estimated 315,000 orangutans in Sumatra and Borneo in 1900. Today, only an estimated 60,000 orangutans remain in the wild. They live solely in the peat-swamp forests of Borneo and Sumatra.
These peatlands were once deemed too remote and nutrient-poor for agriculture. With the advent of large-scale logging and plantations, however, they started getting cleared for development. The oil palm boom of the 1970s kicked deforestation into hyperdrive. It began in Malaysia and by the 1990s spilled over into neighboring Indonesia. Together the two countries account for 80 percent of the world’s palm oil.
Habitat loss not only starves orangutans, it brings them into closer contact with humans. The contact can be lethal. In a study published in PLOS in 2012, conservation biologist Erik Meijaard and his colleagues found that between 2,383 and 3,882 orangutans were killed every year in Borneo. They derived this range from nearly 7,000 interviews conducted with villagers about human-animal conflict.
In the first rounds of deforestation, when the number of displaced orangutans became too many to ignore, palm oil companies and NGOs airlifted them to rehabilitation centers or intact forest elsewhere. But relocating the apes is no longer an option, according to Karmele Sanchez, director of International Animal Rescue (IAR) Indonesia program, an NGO rehabilitating primates. “The habitat is so heavily disturbed and fragmented," she says, that "there isn't near enough forest to put all rescued orangutans.” Instead of overcrowding protected areas like national parks, Sanchez urges plantation operators to accommodate their resident orangutans onsite. For RSPO members, this means a greater emphasis on HCV inholdings within their plantation tracts.
In 2010, Greenpeace activists ran a TV ad showing a man chomping into a Nestlé’s chocolate bar only to find, to his horror, blood dribbling down his chin. Cut to a jungle scene of a screaming orangutan. Then the punch line: “Ask Nestlé to give rainforests a break.”
Partly in response, Nestlé joined the RSPO and temporarily docked one of its most environmentally egregious palm oil suppliers, Jakarta-based Sinar Mas. The company also redesigned its "responsible sourcing guidelines" to only buy palm oil from law-abiding plantations that maintained peatlands, as well as “high carbon” and “high conservation value” forests on their property.
But some environmentalists are unconvinced that such efforts are effective. Hardi Baktiantoro, co-founder of the Center for Orangutan Protection in Jakarta, Indonesia, likens them to “mopping the floor while ignoring the still-gushing tap that’s causing the puddle in the first place.” Others, like Michelle Desilets of the policy think-tank Orangutan Land Trust in Derbyshire, England, remain agnostic: “the RSPO is not a perfect solution but it is the only way to get larger consensus” on orangutan conservation and protection on palm plantations.
But whereas the RSPO may be useful for setting industry standards, its efficacy for enforcing them is another matter. When RSPO member company First Resources, based in Singapore, converted its HCV patches into palm plantations, IAR filed a complaint with the standard-setting consortium. That was 10 years ago; the case is still pending. Even the model HCV enclave that PT-KAL so proudly showed me was smaller than what was recommended by the biodiversity assessors it contracted. Why should companies go overboard with HCV set-asides when they could lose their forest leases for under-exploiting their conditional "use permits"? The RSPO has yet to reconcile this incongruity between its own charter and Indonesian licensing laws. It does not help that RSPO sanctions are not binding, anyway. The organization's charter says companies will be kicked out for flouting their commitments, but repeated NGO "hit lists" of violators have led to few reprimands.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that some conservationists see the RSPO as a cynical exercise in “greenwashing”—dressing up business-as-usual practices with a semblance of environmental stewardship while shirking any real change. After all, the whole endeavor was conceived for PR purposes to begin with, notes Marc Ancrenaz, co-founder of the Malaysia-based NGO, HUTAN. “Companies comply because they want a good image.”
Sonny Sukada, the sustainability director at PT KAL’s parent company ANJ, maintains that the reduced size of the HCV area was needed to “align” the company’s commitment to local communities and its planting objectives, in addition to conservation needs.
In an e-mail, RSPO communications manager Letchumi Achanah acknowledged that the RSPO complaint system was a “long process.” But she defended the speed of negotiations as necessary to “engage” the complainers and the offending party “rather than taking action on the involved party,” which might “formally end a complaint sooner but leave no avenue for improvement on the ground.” As for greenwashing, Achanah noted, “palm oil production has been linked to deforestation, violation of labor rights and displacement of local communities.” The RSPO was set up to address this “urgent concern.”
The HCV concept is hardly unique to the palm oil industry. First developed in 1999 by the Forest Stewardship Council to manage timber plots, it has since been adopted by nine sustainability-certification schemes, including those for soy, wood and pulp producers. But in new palm plantations, the HCV enclaves are particularly beleaguered.
Hendriyanto, of PT KAL's conservation team, says at least once a month he spots orangutans outside the enclaves at large in the plantation. There, they'll eat the palm shoots and fruits, adds Nardiyono, Hendriyanto's boss. With an estimated 100 to 150 of them at a time roaming through the plantations, he adds, they present a ready target for human depredations. Villagers have been known to catch the stray orangutans for pets or food. There even is a record of a non-RSPO palm company offering bounties for dead orangutans as a means of protecting their crop.
To guard against such outcomes, Hendriyanto uses booming "sound cannons" to herd the runaways back into their protected areas. As further insurance, the monitored HCV patches are surrounded by moats to contain animals and keep out forest fires. That arrangement may spare the orangutans from human attack, but it creates siege-like conditions that may be stressful for the animals.
The enclaves make for high-density habitat, which is anathema to the orangutan's free-roaming nature, according to Gail Campbell-Smith an IAR conservation biologist who trains PT KAL staff in wildlife management. Overcrowding means more competition for food and, hence, increased aggression. In fact, researchers recently documented a female orangutan teaming up with a male to kill another female – a striking departure from the species' usual norms of mutually tolerant females.
Isolated populations also lead to inbreeding and eventually “genetic erosion,” says Cardiff University professor Michael Bruford, who researches the genetics of fragmented animal populations. An “eroded” or generally smaller gene pool makes communities more susceptible to disease and extinction.
To relieve such isolation, IAR and other NGOs and government offices are discussing a network of wildlife corridors. The eventual goal is to link all the privately held HCV patches in PT KAL's vicinity, together with the Gunung Palung National Park 40 kilometers to the north and the 1,070 hectares of protected forest maintained for carbon credits by the nearby village of Laman Satong.
Their plan is ambitious but it is not the first of its kind. Two plantations owned by RSPO-member company United Plantation in Central Kalimantan have already established wildlife corridors of their own. And then there is the grandfather of such schemes: a 15-kilometer-long, 25- to 50-meter-wide orangutan corridor in Malaysia maintained for the past five years by RSPO-member company PT Wilmar Berhad, which is headquartered in Singapore.
The wildlife corridor strategy has at least a 40-year history. It has been applied to species ranging from lions in Africa to pandas in China. Some animals take to them better than others. Australian sugar gliders, for instance, want no part of them.
So how will they play out with orangutans? The limited geographic span and duration of the existing corridors mean that it is still too early for data-driven answers. But odds are that results will depend on how much connectivity can be achieved. University of Zurich anthropologist Carel van Schaik, who has been studying orangutans since the 1980s, says that populations can rebound, but only if the islands of remaining habitat can be somehow bridged so that animals can travel between them.
The viability of the corridors will depend, first, upon their physical dimensions. So far, PT KAL has built just one “corridor”: two rows of oil palms that they allowed to go fallow, connecting an HCV plot with the Laman Satong forest. The area was set aside in July 2015, and so far just one orangutan has been sighted in it.
But even that narrow corridor represented a revenue sacrifice on the company's part, so Campbell-Smith hesitates to push for more width. Instead, she aims to expand the corridor network by incorporating riverbanks within the plantations. Not only do the rivers provide migrating animals with abundant food and water, but Malaysian and Indonesian law guarantee the watercourses 30- to 100-meter buffer zones to safeguard against floods and pollution.
Indeed it is far more effective to link up HCV enclaves using already legally protected natural features than to carve new corridors out of deforested plantation land, says conservation biologist Matthew Struebig of the University of Kent in England. Struebig, who is under contract with the Malaysian government for a review of tropical wildlife corridor studies, nevertheless admits, “you can create the best design but if the company doesn't adopt it then it's useless. You need to make it easy for them.”
When it comes to displaced orangutans, though, solutions are rarely easy. It takes far too long to implement and evaluate wildlife management solutions. In the meantime the animals and their habitat are diminishing rapidly. Under such circumstances, it might seem prudent to err on the side of conservation. But the lure of fast profits pulls in the opposite direction.
Melati Kaye’s reporting trip for this story was paid for with a grant from Mongabay.