Indonesia — The ancient peat swamp forests of Tripa, on Indonesia’s Sumatra island, were once home to 1500 orangutans. Now just 280 remain. The rainforest is being torn down to plant the latest wonder crop, palm oil – and a Scottish company that made its fortune from the Chinese opium trade is helping to destroy the critically endangered ape’s habitat.
Jardine Matheson, an internationally renowned trading group with a long and colourful history, owns one of Indonesia’s biggest palm oil producers, Astra Agro Lestari. AAL, part of a Jakarta-based conglomerate, is one of the leading operators in the Tripa area, where it is burning and clear-felling large tracts of the coastal jungle.
Global demand for palm oil – a cheap and versatile oil used in scores of food and household products, including Mars bars, Hovis, Persil, Special K and Flora margarine – is regarded as the main threat to the orangutan’s future. The Sumatran species is particularly vulnerable – with only 6600 left in the wild, it is likely to become the first great ape to disappear.
In Sumatra, locals call oil palm the “golden plant”, thanks to the income that the rapidly growing industry is bringing. But conservation groups say the economic benefits come at a high price, and they deplore Jardine Matheson’s role in hastening the orangutan’s extinction.
Jardines, founded in 1832 by two Scottish traders, William Jardine and James Matheson, is still controlled by a Dumfriesshire family, the Keswicks. The company’s chairman, Henry Keswick, was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours this month for “services to British business interests overseas”.
But not all Sir Henry’s fellow Britons appreciate his work. Every year dozens of orphaned and injured orangutans, many from Tripa, end up at a rescue centre run by Ian Singleton, a zoo keeper from Hull. Singleton says: “There’s a lot of concern about illegal logging in Indonesia, but legal conversion for palm oil is far more serious. Once a forest has been converted to plantation, it’s gone forever.”
At his centre, set on four jungle-clad hectares near the city of Medan, young orangutans clamber around a cage, gorging on bananas and swinging on ropes. Sold as illegal pets after their mothers were killed by farmers or plantation workers, they will eventually be released back into the wild.
Singleton – who teaches the apes how to find forest fruit, build a nest and even how to climb trees – says human-orangutan conflicts are increasingly common as the latter’s territory shrinks. Many arrive with air rifle or machete wounds. “For every 10 babies we get, probably another 10 have been killed, plus 20 adult females,” he says.
Asia has always been Jardine Matheson’s focus. After the British East India Company lost its monopoly on trade with China, Jardines sent the first private shipments of tea to London, Liverpool and Glasgow. It also trafficked opium into China from India, helping to spark the so-called Opium Wars, which led to Hong Kong being ceded to Britain.
The Keswicks, descendants of William Jardine’s sister, dominated the group as it expanded into shipping, property and insurance, acquiring enormous influence in the region. The Jardines chairman became known as the “taipan”, or big boss. The novelist James Clavell based a series of racy historical dramas on the family.
Nowadays the company’s wide-ranging interests include the Mandarin Oriental hotels and Asian branches of Ikea and Starbucks. AAL is a small but lucrative part of the empire, increasing net profits last year by 33% following record plantation earnings.
With Indonesia now the world’s largest palm oil producer, Sumatra – a lush, mountainous island where monkeys scamper in the bushes and water buffalo wander by the roadside – appears to be at risk of turning into one vast plantation. The short, stumpy oil trees are now beginning to blanket the landscape, with the monotony relieved only by occasional scarred brown hillsides.
As you fly over Tripa, designated a priority conservation site under a United Nations plan to save the great apes, the scale of devastation becomes clear. The green tangle of forest abruptly gives way to gigantic rectangles studded with thousands of palms. Numerous illegal fires are visible, including on AAL’s estate.
The peat swamps not only harbour exceptional biodiversity, they also acted as a protective buffer when the 2004 tsunami struck Sumatra’s Aceh province. They also hold massive carbon stores, which are now being released, exacerbating climate change.
Helen Buckland, UK director of the Sumatran Orangatan Society, said this week: “It is frankly shocking that the chairman of Jardine Matheson has been knighted while his company is actively contributing to the demise of the Sumatran orangutan. British businesses must be held accountable for their part in the destruction of this globally important area of forest.”
In a statement, Jardines said: “Both AAL and Astra International take environmental stewardship seriously. AAL believes in and supports the preservation and conservation of the natural environment in Indonesia, and this is fully reflected in its sustainable palm oil growing programmes.”
The firm added it was confident AAL’s plantations function “in full compliance” with local laws, including environmental studies covering the potential impact on endangered species.
AAL denied destroying orangutan habitats and said it planned to develop only half its 13,000 hectares in Tripa because of conservation concerns. It denied setting fires and said it operated according to sustainable principles and practices, taking “careful account of the economic, social and environmental impact of all our plantations”.