Efforts to reform the palm oil industry, particularly through initiatives like the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) and the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) certification schemes as well as the multilateral Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), are an essential part of efforts to preserve and protect the diverse, and often unique, wildlife found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. These strive to ensure that palm oil’s environmental impact is minimised and that animal welfare and habitats are considered by producers of the world’s most popular vegetable oil.
The islands, which form part of Indonesia and Malaysia, are among the most biologically diverse habitats on earth and there needs to be a concerted effort to preserve and protect their remaining primary forests.
But how can palm oil be sustainable? Organisations like MSPO, ISPO and RSPO and major users of palm oil like Nestlé, Unilever, Kellogg’s, L’Oréal and Estée Lauder have set targets to achieve traceability and responsible sourcing, and are leading the drive to address deforestation, habitat destruction, and the negative effects of unsustainable palm oil production while still ensuring that the economically vital crop, and the millions of livelihoods that it sustains, remains viable.
Sustainable oil palm plantations and palm oil producers have committed themselves to a No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation (NDPE) promise, and adhere to stringent guidelines, including zero deforestation, protecting high carbon stock forests, and preventing the conversion of peatlands.
Sustainable eco-friendly palm oil, certified by these organizations and supported by consumers and manufacturers, can play a vital role in balancing economic development with environmental preservation.
According to Forest 500 analysis by non-profit research group Global Canopy, among all the commodities that are linked to deforestation, commitments are more common in palm oil supply chains (72% of companies have made a deforestation commitment) than other commodities including pulp and paper (49%), soy (40%), beef (30%) and leather (28%).
Certified sustainable producers conduct biodiversity assessments and develop conservation plans to ensure that palm oil’s effect on animal habitats and welfare are considered before land development. These assessments identify endangered species and their habitats, leading to the implementation of protective measures. Collaboration with conservation organizations and the establishment of wildlife corridors further contribute to safeguarding endangered species.
This also has a positive knock-on effect on greenhouse gas emissions. When developed on low-carbon stock lands, palm oil may have an even lower emissions factor than comparative oil crops. Furthermore, preventing expansion on forest and peat land, banning burning for land clearance, and using methane capture technology at mills, can reduce the life- cycle emissions of palm oil by 42%.
Research on RSPO-certified plantations puts the lifecycle CO2e emissions of palm oil at 3,4kg/kg, i.e., lower than sunflower or soybean. According to a January 2022 study, 80% of cradle-to-gate emissions from palm oil grown on peatland soil relate to historical peatland drainage and land use conversion, with only 20% relating to agricultural inputs and processing.
But the palm oil industry cannot do it on its own. Saving the orangutan and other wildlife requires a multifaceted approach that involves conservation efforts at multiple levels. Here are some strategies that can be deployed:
- Habitat Protection: One of the primary reasons for the decline in orangutan populations is habitat loss due to deforestation, logging, mining, and land conversion for agriculture. Protecting the remaining habitat and restoring degraded areas are crucial for the survival of orangutan and other animal and plant populations. This can be achieved by creating protected areas, enforcing laws against illegal activities, promoting sustainable land use practices, and engaging with local communities to support conservation efforts.
- Anti-Poaching Efforts: Poaching is a significant threat to orangutans and other animals, with some individuals killed for their meat or captured for the pet trade. Anti-poaching patrols and enforcement efforts can reduce the threat of poaching. Additionally, community-based conservation programs can help to reduce the demand for bushmeat and other wildlife products.
- Rehabilitation and Release Programs: Orangutans that have been orphaned or displaced due to habitat loss can be rehabilitated and released back into the wild. These programs involve providing appropriate care and training to the animals, so they can adapt to life in the wild. Organizations such as the Orangutan Foundation and Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation have successfully implemented such programs.
- Research and Monitoring: Monitoring the population size, behaviour, and health of orangutans is essential to understand their ecology and develop effective conservation strategies. Researchers can also use this data to identify key areas for conservation and prioritize efforts accordingly.
- Education and Awareness: Raising public awareness about the plight of orangutans and the importance of their conservation is essential to secure support for conservation efforts. Educational programs can help to foster a sense of responsibility and empower communities to take action to save the orangutan.
All of these threats are interconnected and often occur together, leading to a compounding effect on populations. To ensure the long-term survival of species, it is necessary to address these threats through conservation measures, such as habitat protection, law enforcement, education, and awareness-raising, and sustainable development practices.
By switching to sustainable, eco-friendly palm oil that is produced in a way that minimises its environmental impact, many key animal species can be saved:
- Orangutans: Orangutans face severe threats due to habitat loss caused by deforestation, conflict with humans, hunting, and the illegal pet trade. Sustainable palm oil production prioritises practices that preserve high conservation value areas and protects orangutan habitats. This can significantly contribute to their long-term survival.
- Sumatran Tigers: The Sumatran tiger is a critically endangered subspecies with an estimated population of fewer than 400 individuals. They are highly dependent on the forests of Sumatra. Implementing sustainable palm oil practices that prevent habitat destruction can play a vital role in safeguarding this iconic species.
- Asian Elephants: Asian elephants are highly affected by the loss and fragmentation of their habitats. These majestic animals require extensive areas to roam and find food. Supporting sustainable palm oil practices that prevent deforestation and protect elephant habitats can help ensure their survival.
- Borneo Pygmy Elephants: Borneo pygmy elephants, a subspecies of Asian elephants, face habitat fragmentation and conflicts with humans. RSPO’s principles promote responsible land use and aim to reduce environmental impacts, contributing to the preservation of their habitats.
- Sun Bears: The smallest bears in the world, sun bears, are native to Southeast Asia, including Malaysia and Indonesia. They face habitat loss and poaching. Protecting their forest habitats through sustainable palm oil practices is crucial for their long-term survival.
- Proboscis Monkeys: The unique-looking proboscis monkeys are endemic to Borneo and are known for their distinctive large noses. They are highly dependent on swamp forests and riverine habitats. Implementing sustainable palm oil practices can help protect their habitats and ensure the survival of this vulnerable species.
- Clouded Leopards: Clouded leopards are elusive and endangered big cats found in the forests of Malaysia and Indonesia. Deforestation poses a significant threat to their survival. By supporting sustainable palm oil practices that preserve their habitats, we can contribute to the conservation of these beautiful and rare felines.
- Sumatran Rhinoceros: The critically endangered Sumatran rhinoceros is on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss and poaching. RSPO’s focus on minimizing deforestation and protecting biodiversity can play a crucial role in safeguarding the remaining populations and their habitats.