Going Beyond "Orangutan Friendly" Palm-Oil
There’s a good reason why most campaign images and slogans concerning conflict palm-oil center around orangutans. After all, the Southeast Asian great ape is intensely threatened by habitat loss, a direct result of the timber and palm-oil industries. The Sumatran Orangutan Society states that in the last one hundred years, populations are down by 80% from over 300,000. While the exact number is unknown, it is suspected that Bornean orang numbers are less than 50,000 and critically endangered Sumatran populations are much lower than 7,000 in the wild. These numbers are dwindling at such a fast rate, that we may even see orangutans become extinct in the wild in our own lifetimes.
When we first began to probe companies about their impact on wildlife populations, we would occasionally receive reassurance that their palm-oil was orangutan safe or friendly. To a trusting consumer, this would be good news. The claim, whether the sender means for it to or not, implies a further reaching responsibility. The implication is that these companies are ethically sourcing ingredients in a way that protects animal habitat.
With the threat of extinction looming over our heads, it makes sense to create awareness terms that challenge the consumer to think about the impact of their choices. 'Orangutan friendly' palm-oil is a great tool for activism, but be mindful that it is also gravely deceptive if misused.
After an initial e-mail stating that the palm-oil was orangutan friendly, we would press further for more detail like a supplier or country of origin. A handful of companies responded that they sourced their palm from South America - a region over ten thousand miles away from where orangutans actually call home. Of course, I do see that because orangutan conservation is such an important cause, that companies may want to assure customers that their palm-oil does not in any way contribute to the great ape's extinction. But I think that this claim, without mention of South America, is very misleading to customers, who may take this information to have deeper meaning.
Indonesia and Malaysia are the largest exporters of palm-oil and their wildlife deserves the attention it receives, because the situation is so dire for them. But let’s not forget that the palm-oil industry is booming in other parts of the world, like South America and Africa, each with their own respective wildlife groups to protect.
Chimpanzee populations in Cote d’Ivoire have decreased by 90% in 'just 17 years’. Palm-oil plantations in the Dja Faunal Reserve in Cameroon threaten the habitat of many different primates such as gorillas, chimps, and mandrills. Bonobo habitats overlap with palm oil land concessions’ in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the only place in the world where these endangered primates can be found in the wild. In Colombia, palm-oil monoculture has fragmented habitat for brown spider monkeys and all of the animals that live alongside them. For example, plantations intersect greatly with Colombian Jaguar habitat and efforts in the past have been made to usher these populations in and out of fragmented forest via man-made corridors.
Basically, companies sourcing their palm-oil outside of Southeast Asia should be offering us, and you, more than just an orangutan-safe seal, because there are plenty of endemic species of which they can be concerned.
Creating awareness terms and groups for lesser known, but endangered still, animals is important, but I also understand that compassion fatigue is easily obtained when it comes to conflict palm-oil activism. I don't think the answer lies in creating broader terms (animal friendly palm-oil) or more terms (sun bear friendly palm-oil). Right now, impact reports and land overviews for palm-oil suppliers in Africa and South America simply do not match the depth of public information that we have for Indonesian and Sumatran business practices. Part of going beyond these terms begins with consumers seeking out information for themselves.
This week, ask at least one brand how their palm-oil affects wildlife. If you're told that their palm-oil is orangutan friendly, inquire as to how that is measured or ensured. Ask about country of origin. If you're given a location outside of Southeast Asia, ask about the welfare of a few of the animals we discussed above.
Let companies know that you would gladly welcome chimp friendly and jaguar safe palm-oil too, if only you were given the opportunity!