Like most of us, I learned about palm oil from the Internet, through a photo of a disfigured orangutan. Although this is a common way to spread awareness through shock, I and many others tend to tune out such stories as, while often true, they can be overwhelming, or emphasize emotion over fact. If we can’t understand an issue, we can’t truly support it. For me, palm oil was just another item on the list of things the Internet says I mustn't eat.

We know that deforestation and palm oil are threats to these animals but so often these are just words that get lost in the hundreds of causes vying for our attention each week, and it was not until I saw it myself that the reality hit home. I hope this article can convey even half of what we experienced in Sumatra, and show you while palm oil is a very real issue.

I joined Louise Rogerson from EARS on research trip to visit Vesswic , a charity that has been providing medical care for the Sumatran elephants for many years. I was to join them at a tourist and forest patrol camp at Tangkahan, and stopped off along the way to nearby Bukit Lawang to meet some semi-wild orangutans. Before we even arrived at our first stop, the problems were immediately apparent.

We drove through hours of palm plantations, stopping only to move to the side of the road occasionally to allow huge trucks full of palm fruit to pass by. The palm trees go on seemingly forever, uniformly planted in rows precisely 7.8m apart with 9m between trees, calculated for maximum yield. The effect is unnerving; nature in a very unnatural pattern.

It comes down to this: the palm fruit. A small fibrous fruit that smells and tastes a lot like olive oil, and its kernel, both of which are used to produce different oils. Palm oil is used in everything from food to toiletries, and is difficult if not impossible to avoid in your daily life.

There are things you can do, as we will see below, but first lets take a look at the problems this industry creates.

Firstly is the loss of forest and biodiversity that goes with it. Take a look below at just a few of the species we encountered in just a few days at the very edge of the forest. The rate of habitat loss for these creatures is untenable, with some estimates giving only 20 years left for the forest, far less time for the animals within.

Secondly is the economic dependence of a region so reliant on a single export. Alternatives for local income such as eco-tourism are not as prevalent in Sumatra as they are in other areas of Asia. What happens to a region so dependent on a single crop if palm oil prices crash? If it falls out of favour, or is replaced with an alternative?

Here, in the middle of the plantations, is a palm oil factory, with many small palms being grown to be sold and replanted in a few years after the existing trees no longer bear fruit.

The rows of trees blur together, being all you can see for hours. On the left here you can see rows of palms, then a clear divide to the right hand side, dense, untamed forest teeming with life. These plantations are monoculture, very little other than palms can or do live there.

And then suddenly you reach the edge of the true forest, and it hits you: a huge variety of plants, insects, birds, mammals and other animals that almost overwhelm with the constant movement and noise: it buzzes with activity.

There are elephants and tigers, primates, birds, animals of all shapes and sizes under severe threat.

But It’s orangutans which are the poster-child for the palm-oil movement. 

The Orangutans

Bukit Lawang was the site of an orangutan rehabilitation centre up until 1996. Rescued orangutans were released into this protected forest area and food provided for those who were still not able to forage for themselves, such as those orphans without parents teaching them how to survive.

The project was moved up to Medan, but food is still provided for the orangutans that still need it, should they wish to return to the area and find it. Money is raised by the government department by allowing tourists to view these semi-wild rescues as they come back to feed.

We saw a number of rescued orangutans, as well as wild orangutans and wild-born babies. Providing food now that the rescue centre has moved could be seen as cynical or even damaging for the wild orangutans that may come to rely on the human feedings. Personally I believe it is acceptable; we caused them to need rescuing, and have a responsibility to make up for it.

So why did these orangutans need rescuing in the first place? Deforestation: the removal of their natural habitat in the rush for plantation land.

In 2010, the Indonesian government declared a moratorium on logging, protecting its forest in return for financial aid if targets are met. This is difficult if not impossible to enforce, however, with such a huge landmass to protect, corruption rife, and people in rural areas who need money to survive. 

Even with laws in place, a massive proportion of logging is thought to be illegal, some estimates are upwards of 70% of all logging in Indonesia being illegal, unaffected by any moratorium.

Seeing these orangutans first-hand, having been directly affected in the rush for palm oil, was heart-breaking. Without these protected areas of forest, the wild-born babies would have no chance at survival.

The Elephants

It’s not only orangutans displaced by the palm oil plantations. A much bigger, heavier and more dangerous problem is human-elephant conflict. As their habitat decreases, elephants wander into plantations and villages, where they can cause a lot of damage. These elephants would often be killed by the villagers or farmers, so to stop this, a project was enacted to capture and use these elephants as patrol, to drive off wild elephants. At Tangkahan that is the Conservation Response Unit, set up with the help of Flora & Fauna International.

Its sad to see these elephants who were robbed of their homes. Elephant patrol is not a perfect solution, and training patrol elephants is no easy task, but until the palm oil industry can be stopped it’s a sensible compromise to both the problems of preventing wild elephant killings and other elephants causing more damage in the future.

The people in affected areas still need to earn a living, and at Tangkahan they have turned to tourism. Eco-tourism is still an underdeveloped area in Sumatra, but there are a number of places pushing such ideas. The elephant medical care at Tangkahan is amazing, provided by Vesswic who also train the local mahouts to provide the very best in animal welfare. This is a long-term goal and without direct influence it is difficult for outside organisations to push this change. As an elephant experience for a tourist, there may still be a long way to go. Bullhooks were used with the wooden end only, and I saw one mahout was using a metal nail, just as I saw in Surin in 2013. Metal chairs were also used for the elephant rides, which many welfare organisations do not condone.

This is a patrol and tourist camp trying to support itself, not a sanctuary, so it was an interesting experience to see such a facility compared to the welfare-centric places I usually visit. There is scarely enough forest left to provide territory for elephant releases in the future but with the ongoing work from the likes of EARS and Vesswic on improving conditions, I would love to one day see Tangkahan as a sanctuary, thriving on income from eco-tourists and animal lovers.

What can we do?

Avoid palm oil:

Aside from checking the label, those who live in countries with established brands, like the US, Australia and the UK, will find it easy to search online for lists of palm oil free products.

Beware of "Sustainable" palm oil:

If you see a sustainable palm oil sticker, you must consider it carefully. It is a complex issue, but labels like the "Greenpalm" certificate have been widely denounced by conservation groups as meaningless at best and marketing ploys at worst.

Do your best:

Palm oil is so widely used that it may be impossible to avoid it completely. As always, we can just do our best to vote with our wallets, find alternative brands, and help spread the word.

You can also donate to some of the organisations working in this region, including:

EARS Asia |  Vesswic | The Orangutan Project

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