Indonesia — It is veryeasy to cast a roving eye over the planet and find some less than humane humanacts perpetrated against other creatureswhether they bedestruction of protected habitats, or the wholesale wiping out of ascarce endemic species.
But to find these things and one or two others, includingcorporate acquisitiveness, wrapped up in a single situation is rathertragic.
Palm oil, which sounds innocuous enough, is now found in 10% of supermarketproducts and hails from South East Asia.
Vast palm oil plantations carpet thelowlands of peninsular Malaysia, parts of Sumatra and Borneo.
They have replaced some of the most diverse and ancient habitats in theworld with a landscape as inappropriate as the ill conceived spruceplantations of the Flow Country in Northwest Scotland.
In South East Asia labour is cheap and palm oil in a world market is equallyso.
It contains a natural preservative, which increases the shelf life of theproduct into which it is infused and therefore sits well with an Enumber-conscious West.
Apparently we can’t get enough of it and share prices inpalm oil may well be in the running to soar as the product is set tobecome a major player in the global vegetable market.
Currently South East Asian rainforests are being destroyed faster than ever,their indigenous peoples and wildlife swept aside or asunder by acommercial tsunami.
One scheme alone, slap bang in the middle of Borneo’s Tanjung Puting NationalPark, proposes to clear an area the size of, yesyou guessed it, Wales for palm oil production.
Apart from the area being home to several tribes, it is also one of the lastplaces where orang-utans, an endangeredspecies, live.
Orang-utans ‘enjoy’ the highest conservation priority yet, paradoxically, “Therate of loss … of orang-utans has never been greaterthan in the last three years” says Dr Willie Smits at the Borneo OrangutanSurvival Foundation, “and oil-palm plantations take the brunt of theblame”.
It’s a twisty tale but this is basically how it goes. In the dim yet recent pastMalaysia and Indonesia joined the Kyoto Protocol buoyed by their massivecarbon credits in lieu of rainforest.
The special waiver in the deal is that if palm oil forests replace rainforesttheir Kyoto obligations remain the same.
This provision unfortunately pans out into the exposure rather than theprotection of natural habitats.
These countries, for not cutting down their existingforests, gain no carbon credit through Kyoto. Orang-utans, scarce and unique toBorneo, are disappearing fast.
All the worlds’ experts concur that without intervention orang-utans could beextinct within as few as 12 years.
Professor Biruté Galdikas of the Orangutan Foundation International lamentsthat “The orang-utan is endangered because ofhabitat loss.
Today the greatest threat to orang-utan habitat is the continued expansion ofoil-palm plantations.
Palm oil is the greatest enemy of orang-utanand their continued survival in the wild.
” Unlike man and bird, which on foot or wing can at least escape,orang-utans seek refuge high up in the canopies often in the very trees theloggers intend to fell.
In an act of total barbarism both ape and tree are then often killed together.
Also forest fires started to make way for palm oil plantations havekilled thousands of orang-utans.
Some young surviving orang-utans are secreted into the illegal trade inendangered species, re-emerging as novelty pets or in private zoos.
Should an infant be found in the clutchesof a surviving mother, the parent is often crudely killed with machetes.
Sometimes the youngster is also injured in the fray.Orang-utan rescue centres in Borneo are awash with orphaned orang-utans manywith hands, fingers, toes or feet missing.
Perhaps Kyoto’s ‘loopholes’ will eventually be pulled out with the new CompanyLaw Reform Bill, which is under consideration, but it will take time.
And time, it would appear, is the one thing the orang-utan and its forest do nothave as legislation to protect the environment seems to gripglobalisation like greasy palms on a slippery fish; mostly it swimsfreely and when caught remains so only briefly.