Earth Hour, the annual event when thousands across the globe turn off lights and power to promote sustainability - was a success – read more at Learn From Nature. In the same moment, we hear reports of habitats under threat . Reports from The Independent
Fires raging unchecked in an Indonesian peat swamp forest could wipe out the remaining Sumatran orang-utans which live there, conservationists are warning. The forest is one of the last refuges of the great apes. The illegal fires, started by palm-oil companies clearing land to plant the lucrative crop, are believed to have killed at least 100 orang-utans – one-third of those living in the Tripa swamp, on the west coast of Sumatra‘s Aceh province. The rest could die within weeks, according to Dr Ian Singleton, conservation director of the Sumatran Orang-utan Conservation Programme.
“The speed of destruction has gone up dramatically in the last few weeks… This is obviously a deliberate drive by these companies to clear all the remaining forests,” Dr Singleton said. “If this is not stopped right now, all those orang-utans… will be gone before the end of 2012.”
Only 6,600 Sumatran orang-utans are estimated to be left in the wild, and the Tripa swamp – where they are most densely concentrated – is considered crucial to the species’ survival. But less than one-quarter of the peat forest remains; the rest has been converted to palm-oil plantations.
Satellite imagery showing 92 fires over the past week has horrified conservationists, who are awaiting a court ruling with far-reaching implications for the protection of wildlife habitats in Indonesia. The judgment relates to a lawsuit brought against the governor of Aceh by the local branch of Walhi, an environmental group. Walhi decided to act after the governor, Irwandi Yusuf, granted a new permit to one of the country’s biggest palm-oil companies, PT Kallista Alam. Walhi Aceh argues that the permit, which would allow another 4,000 acres of peatland to be destroyed, was granted illegally.
The judges are due to reach a decision next Tuesday. If they dismiss the challenge, other important habitats could also be threatened. Tripa is nominally protected by a presidential moratorium on new logging and palm-oil concessions, as well as by legislation governing the conservation area within which it is located.
There may now be as few as 200 orang-utans left in the Tripa forest, which shelters a dozen endangered species, including the white-handed gibbon, clouded leopard, Malayan sun bear, Sumatran tiger and giant soft-shelled turtle.
- Indonesian fires threaten Sumatran orangutan (thehimalayantimes.com)
- Rare Sumatran orangutans dying as fires rage in Indonesian swamp forest (guardian.co.uk)
- Rare Population of Sumatran Orangutans Could Be Wiped Out in Weeks (treehugger.com)
- 100 orangutans estimated lost in Indonesian fires (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Indonesia land clearance ‘wiping out’ orangutans (mnn.com)
- Indonesia land clearance wiping out orangutans (canada.com)
- 100 Orangutans Estimated Lost in Indonesian Fires (abcnews.go.com)
- Fires pushing orangutans closer to extinction (scotsman.com)
- Indonesian Fires Again Burning Protected Forest, Decimating Orangutan Populations (genascihk.wordpress.com)
While the quasi-apocalyptic tumult over carbon pricing has dominated the Australian media for the best part of 2011, another fierce, albeit less high profile, environmental debate has entered its final stages – the labelling of palm oil on product packaging.
A long-running legislative saga, launched in the Australian senate in 2009 by independent Nick Xenophon, is being willed to the finish line by environmentalists Down Under.
An unlikely alliance between Xenophon, the Greens and the centre-right Coalition has passed legislation in the senate, despite it being rejected at committee stage. The truth in labelling – palm oil bill, which will require products to carry information on palm oil content, is now expected to be approved by the house of representatives.
Xenophon, who has long crusaded to reduce Australians’ use of poker machines, sees palm oil labelling primarily as a consumer issue, saying: “Australians consume 10 kilos of palm oil every year and don’t know it. These laws will give consumers the knowledge they need to make an informed choice at the supermarket checkout.”
But for conservation groups, the legislation is a long-overdue boost for the orangutan, which has been pushed to the edge of extinction by the rampant clearing of its natural habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia for palm oil cultivation.
The two south-east Asian countries account for 85% of the world’s $40bn palm oil industry, with the product estimated to be present in around 40% of Australian foods, including beloved national snacks such as Tim Tams and Arnott’s Shapes.
Palm oil, which is also found in toothpaste and cosmetics, is labelled as vegetable oil on packaging in Australian shops.
A 2007 report by the UN found that 98% of natural rainforest in Malaysia and Indonesia could disappear by 2022, with palm oil production seen as a key driver of the destruction that sees the equivalent of 300 football pitches of forest wiped out each hour.
The impact upon the orangutan, the only Asian great ape, has been severe – it’s estimated that 1,000 a year die due to forest clearing in its heartlands of Borneo and Sumatra, with predictions that the species could be extinct in the wild within 20 years.
There are also concerns over the impact of palm oil-driven deforestation on climate change, with peat-filled soils, exposed by the removal of trees, releasing large quantities of methane into the atmosphere.
Indonesia has been ranked the world’s third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, behind the US and China, when deforestation is taken into account. But it is images of orphaned orangutans that has turned the issue into a cause celebre in Australia, which imports around 130,000 tonnes of palm oil a year.
The Don’t Palm Us Off campaign, which has been supported by Zoos Victoria, TV network Ten and an assortment of local celebrities, has proved a straightforward environmental cause for Australians confused by the endless carbon price ructions.
The campaign aims to have a similar impact to Greenpeace UK’s widely-circulated Kit Kat video, which successfully pressed Nestle into agreeing to use palm oil derived from sustainable sources.
“The production of palm oil is essentially destroying the habitat and homes of orangutan species,” says Rachel Lowry, director of wildlife conservation at Zoos Victoria. “We have horrifying footage, images coming through to us almost daily here at Zoos Victoria.”
“We have staff that go across to Indonesia for skill share programs that are bringing back reports of orangutans being displaced, being killed, essentially returning to burning fields or fields that have been cleared [to put] palm oil crops in.”
However, opposition to the palm oil labelling requirements has been persistent. The Australian Food and Grocery Council, despite being a member of RSPO, claims that the changes will cost the industry “hundreds of millions of dollars” to implement and may even breach the Australia/New Zealand Food Treaty, which requires the antipodean neighbours to consult each other over amendments to food law. New Zealand is the world’s largest user of palm kernel extract, a palm oil byproduct, which it uses to feed cows.
While the minority Gillard government should be able to brush aside the concerns of industry lobbyists, the situation with Malaysia is a little more delicate. Tan Sri Bernard Giluk Dompok, Malaysia’s commodities minister, is currently in Australia to stress to MPs the economic importance of palm oil exports. Dompok insists that palm oil has been an “easy target” for campaigners in Australia, rebuffing evidence that the product causes environmental destruction.
Dompok’s visit comes at a crucial time in relations between the two countries, with the Australian government poised to finalise a controversial deal that will see it swap 800 asylum seekers who arrived by boat with 4,000 refugees already processed by Malaysia.
Conservationists hope the long-awaited palm oil packaging law won’t hit yet another hurdle, so close to the finishing line.
- Please send automatic messages regarding palm oil and environmental destruction (ourcompass.wordpress.com)
- Palm Oil – Who what where? (ecodaily.wordpress.com)
- Indonesia survey finds many unaware orangutan protected (reuters.com)
- Rainforest vs. Palm Oil (ecodaily.wordpress.com)
- The Body Shop drops Colombian palm oil supplier for alleged land grabbing (colombiasoilpalm.wordpress.com)
- Barbie/Ken breakup spurs Mattel to sustainability action (sfgate.com)
- Palm Oil – A big Stranger (ecodaily.wordpress.com)
- Xenophon wants action on cattle trade (news.theage.com.au)
- Making Girl Scout Cookies Better for the Planet (time.com)