By Jessie Panazzolo

Conservation efforts in the past have always gone to protecting the remaining fragments of precious primary forest, and it’s warranted as these patches of remaining forest land are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the entire world, but that is just the thing, they are just patches.  What makes up more of a sparse area is agricultural land such as oil palm and rubber tree plantations, with forests disappearing every day to make more room for this economy driven land use. Now days, when the Sumatran elephant walks along its migration pathways travelled by ancestors before them, they end up trampling through plantations, destroying food and rubber crops as they pass through. Disapproving agricultural workers end up poisoning 20-30 elephants per year who enter these plantations, diminishing numbers of what is already one of the world’s most critically endangered species.

Historic Court Ruling against Palm Oil Company to Benefit Orangutans

 

by Donna Clifford-Jones, Norman, OK.

tripaburnsIndonesia’s position as one of the world’s largest producers of palm oil and concomitant leadership in global deforestation continues to have devastating consequences for Sumatra’s orangutans.[1]  Over time the species has been increasingly driven out of its natural habitat with the clearing, burning and conversion of forests into palm oil plantations.[2]  This is especially seen in the Tripa peat swamp forest in Aceh province which is a critical habitat for orangutans.[3]  The forest is part of the legally protected Leuser Ecosystem, designated as a National Strategic Area for environmental protection, and where it is illegal to issue permits for palm oil, mining or other damaging activities.[4]  Unfortunately, the profit motive has seen the palm oil companies intrude into this protected area which is now in a perilous condition.

Prosecutions have been sought against a number of companies for illegal activities relating to the forest destruction.[5]  The remainder of this article will describe the legal proceedings initiated against one company, PT Kallista Alam.  In the wider sense, the case illustrates the competing agendas of the local and central governments of Indonesia in dealing with the economic and environmental issues facing the country.  In the narrower sense, the case offers a ray of hope for the survival of Sumatra’s orangutans.

Background to case

In May 2011, Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono placed a two year national moratorium on new permits in primary forests and peat lands.  The decision was required by the agreement on REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), a climate agreement with the objective of protecting primary forests and peat lands to cut carbon emissions.[6]  The effect of the President’s moratorium was that new plantation developments would be prohibited in many parts of the Tripa peat swamp forest.

On August 25, 2011, the Governor of Aceh province, Irwandi Yusuf, infringed the moratorium by issuing a permit to the company PT Kallista Alam.  This allowed it to develop 1,605 hectares in the Tripa peat swamp forest into an oil palm plantation.[7]  The oversight organization monitoring the moratorium, the Presidential Working Union for Supervision and Management of Development (UKP4), criticized the decision and advised the Governor to select alternative land for the permit.  The provincial government defended the Governor’s decision stating that the permit had been correctly issued.[8]

On October 24, 2011, local NGOs sent a letter to the Governor stating they would take legal action if he failed to withdraw the permit.  With no action forthcoming and the ongoing rhetoric from groups like PanEco and YEL stating they would challenge the permit’s legality in court, communities decided to report the permit violation to the national police in Jakarta.  Some of these groups ended up assisting in the subsequent legal proceedings by bringing national and international media attention to the Tripa area.[9]

Additionally, environmental groups persuaded senior officials in the government and specifically the Ministry of Environment (MOE) to investigate the matter further.[10]  The head of the task force for the REDD+ agency also asked the MOE to investigate because of the permit’s violation of the national moratorium.[11]

The MOE’s formal investigation in May, 2012, revealed that the company had been clearing forests in the Tripa area for up to ten months prior to receiving the permit.[12]  Satellite imagery and community reports identified concessions of both PT Kallista Alam and other companies that had breached the moratorium and Spatial Planning Law of 2007, which makes it illegal and a criminal offence to use fire to clear forests on peat lands.[13]  But despite the investigation, the forest clearance, peat lands drainage and burning continued.

Legal proceedings

A series of legal proceedings have revolved around the above events involving a number of different parties.

Lawsuit filed by WALHI

The first of these proceeding took place on November 23, 2011, when WALHI filed a lawsuit to revoke the permit against Governor Irwandi Yusuf and PT Kallista Alam at the Administrative Court of Banda Aceh.[14]  It argued that the permit was issued illegally in a protected area within the Leuser Ecosystem and that it violated the moratorium on new permits.[15]

The case was dismissed at first instance with the judge citing lack of capacity.  WALHI successfully appealed the decision at the Medan State Administrative High Court, where the court found violations in the issuance of the permit and at least one illegal concession owned by the company.  The court ordered the new Governor of Aceh, Zaini Abdullah, to cancel the permit in the illegal concession.[16]  On September 27, 2012, the permit was withdrawn in the new Governor’s decree, revoking the decree of former Governor.[17]

The company appealed the decision to the Supreme Court in Jakarta.  It also filed a separate lawsuit against the new Governor in the Administrative Court of Banda Aceh.  Lawyers for the company told The Globe Journal that as litigants they were “requested to improve the lawsuit”.[18]  The Government of Aceh’s Legal Division and PR challenged the suit in response.[19]

WALHI’s motion to intervene

On December 13, 2012, WALHI motioned to intervene and join as a co-defendant with the Governor against the suit.  The company objected to the motion stating WALHI had no interest in the case.  WALHI maintained that the motion was based on the original case filed against the former Governor and the legal precedent set by that case, that being the decision instructing the new Governor to revoke the permit.  WALHI also stated that it wanted to demonstrate its support for the new Governor’s decision.[20]  The court granted the motion on January 8, 2013.

For the remainder of the session, PT Kallista’s lawyers requested the court cancel the permit revocation or at least postpone that decision until the appeal to the Supreme Court in Jakarta was finalized.  The court granted the request and moved to continue the trial to January 23, 2013.[21]

The appeal to the Supreme Court was later rejected, upholding the Medan State Administrative High Court’s decision and order that the new Governor revoke the permit.[22]

Lawsuit filed by MOE

A second set of proceedings took place on November 8, 2012, when prosecutors from the Attorney General’s Office representing the MOE filed civil and criminal lawsuits against PT Kallista Alam at the District Court of Meulaboh.  The charges were illegal clearing of peat lands by burning and causing environmental damage in the Tripa peat swamp forest.  A P16 “Order of Appointment for the Public Prosecutor to Observe the Development of the Investigation of the Crime” was prepared for the criminal case.[23]

The first civil trial hearing took place on November 27, 2012, but was postponed because PT Kallista Alam’s lawyers failed to appear.  The documents for the criminal lawsuit were still under evaluation by the Attorney General but once completed were to be sent to the District Court for both the civil and criminal proceedings to be conducted there.[24]

The next civil trial hearing was held on December 12, 2012, to verify the parties’ identification.  The session only lasted fifteen minutes and was postponed to January 7, 2013, because PT Kallista’s lawyers failed to submit a written power of attorney.  An interview with The Globe Journal confirmed they had only been verbally assigned to represent the company.[25]

At some point a mediation hearing was arranged for January 30, 2013, at the District Court of Meulaboh.  The mediation was an attempt to settle the civil case, with the stipulation that the company pay compensation for the environmental damage caused through clearing the peat lands by burning.  [The stipulation was based on the obligation to rehabilitate which was part of the original civil law suit].[26]

A further hearing followed on July 7, 2013, with the MOE’s first expert witness stating that damage to the Tripa Peat swamp forest was caused by frequent flooding, which was caused in turn by destruction of the peat by fire and the opening of the canals.  A second expert witness stated that the fire in the company’s concession was caused by a human act and that he had based his findings on field visits to the area.[27]

Over the ensuing months protestors both in favor and against PT Kallista Alam gathered at the court.  On July 11, 2012, protestors against the company demanded immediate withdrawal of the permit and payment to the community for damages caused to the land.[28]  On November 15, 2012, protestors in support of the company, who had been paid to disrupt proceedings, demanded a decision be found in PT Kallista’s favor.[29]

Despite the intimidation tactics from protestors, the court ordered PT Kallista’s assets be frozen, and scheduled a final hearing for December 5, 2012, when a ruling was to be delivered.  But this date was also postponed.[30]  Kamaruddin, a lawyer representing the Tripa community, and Deddy Ratih, WALHI’s Spatial Planning Campaigner, stated in separate accounts they believed the company was prolonging the proceedings to avoid a judgment against it.[31]

District Court’s ruling

One month later, on January I, 2014, the court handed down its final ruling in the civil case against PT Kallista Alam.  The company was found guilty of illegally clearing peat land forest by burning within the protected Tripa peat swamp forest in violation of the national law 32/2009 on Environmental Protection and Management.

The court ordered that the company pay Rupiah 114.3 billion (USD 9.4 million) compensation to the state and an environmental restoration fee of Rupiah 251.7 billion (USD 20.6 million) to rehabilitate the land destroyed.[32]  A daily fine of 5 million rupiah (USD 423) was imposed for each day the compensation and restoration costs remain unpaid.  The court also ordered that 5,769 hectares of the company’s land be seized.[33]

At the time of the decision, the criminal case was still under evaluation by the Attorney General’s Office.  Alfian Sarumaha, PT Kallista’s lawyer stated that he expected the company to appeal the decision.[34]

Consequences of the court’s ruling for orangutans

The court’s ruling established a new historic precedent that reinforced protection of primary forests and peat lands under the existing moratorium and the law prohibiting the use of fire to clear land.  The expectation is that this will deter companies from future illegal clearing and burning in protected areas.[35]  This should result in slowing down the destruction of further orangutan habitat.

The company may appeal the decision.  If it appeals and loses or fails to appeal, the court’s ruling will enter into legal force.  The order to pay an environmental restoration fee will then be used to develop a plan to rehabilitate the land to its natural state, although the prospect is that the land could take three decades to recover completely.[36]  Restoration projects like this, though a move in the right direction will have no immediate benefit to the orangutan habitat.

The ruling has also generated increased international awareness and support for the need to protect Aceh’s forests, with petitions collected from over one and a half million signatures.[37]  This is an important outcome, along with spreading the message to avoid the purchase of palm oil products.  Ideally this should decrease the pressure on using protected areas of land for palm oil plantations which will benefit orangutans.

Finally, the ruling sets a precedent for future legal proceedings which may need to be relied on if the new provincial spatial plan by-law that ignores the protected status of the Leuser Ecosystem becomes law and legal proceedings ensue.[38]  The question then becomes whether the precedent will be followed when the entire Leuser Ecosystem is under threat.  The implementation of such a by-law will have significant impact on orangutan habitat and perhaps be the deciding factor in the long term survival of the species.  With this outlook there is no room for complacency in the battle to protect the forests of Sumatra and its orangutans.



[2]endoftheicons (2013), “Indonesia: Orangutans in big trouble”, endoftheicons, 22 February [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[3] SOS Sumatran Orangutan Society (2014). “Groundbreaking rule against the destruction of the Tripa Peat Swamp forests” SOS Sumatran Orangutan Society [accessed on 6 June, 2014].

[4]endoftheicons (2013), “Rogue Palm Oil Company, Fearing Negative Ruling, Initiates Conflict with Indonesian Court”, endoftheicons, 15 November [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[5] Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (2014), “Palm Oil Company fined Millions as Indonesian Court delivers historic ruling against illegal destruction of Tripa Peat Swamp Forests”, Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, 9 January [accessed on 19 May 2014].

[6]endoftheicons (2012), “Rebel hero who has ‘betrayed’ the last of Aceh’s orang-utans”, endoftheicons, 27 March [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[7]endoftheicons (2012), “Indonesia’s Aceh breaches forest clearing moratorium”, endoftheicons, 27 March [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[8] Ibid.

[9] BOS Canada (2013) “For the Protection of wild and rehabilitant orangutans & their native habitat”, News 2013 [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[10]endoftheicons (2014), “In precedent-setting case, palm oil company fined $30M for destroying orangutan forest”, endoftheicons, 10 January [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[11]endoftheicons (2012), “PRESS RELEASE: Investigation result from REDD+ Task Force in Tripa”endoftheicons, 17 April [accessed on 17 May 2014].     

[12] VESSWIC (2013), “Webinar: Impending Disaster, the Destruction of Aceh”WALCI Aceh [accessed 18 May 2014].

[14] BOS Canada (2013) “For the Protection of wild and rehabilitant orangutans & their native habitat”, News 2013 [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[16] BOS Canada (2013) “For the Protection of wild and rehabilitant orangutans & their native habitat”, News 2013 [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[17]endoftheicons (2012), “PT. Kallista Alam suing Aceh Government in regard to revoking permitendoftheicons, 30 November [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[18]endoftheicons (2012), “PT. Kallista Alam suing Aceh Government in regard to revoking permitendoftheicons, 30 November [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[19]Ibid.

[21]endoftheicons (2013), “WALHI Aceh Welcomes the Decision of the Administrative Courtendoftheicons, 11 January [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[22] BOS Canada (2013) “For the Protection of wild and rehabilitant orangutans & their native habitat”, News 2013 [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[23]endoftheicons (2012), “State Attorney Lawyers File the Legal Case of Tripa Peat Swamp This Weekendoftheicons, 8 November [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[25]endoftheicons (2012), “District Court of Meulaboh delay Kallista hearing for the second timeendoftheicons, 14 December [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[26]endoftheicons (2013), “KLH : No Settlement of the Case Without Compensationendoftheicons, 1 February [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[27]endoftheicons (2013), “Peat Fires Within PT. Kalista Alam Caused Through Human Actendoftheicons, 8 July; (2013), “Flood in Tripa Caused By Damaged Peat Function”endoftheicons, 8 July [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[28]endoftheicons (2013), “Students Urge Court to Withdraw PT Kalista Alam’s Permitendoftheicons, 15 July [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[29]endoftheicons (2013),  “Rogue Palm Oil Company, Fearing Negative Ruling, Initiates Conflict with Indonesian Courtendoftheicons, 15 November [accessed on 18 May 2014].

[30]Ibid.

[32]endoftheicons (2014), “In precedent-setting case, palm oil company fined $30M for destroying orangutan forestendoftheicons, 10 January [accessed on 18 April 2014].

[33] Gartland, A. (2014), “Palm Oil Company Fined Millions For Burning Sumatran Forest”Environment News Service [accessed on 19 Mary 2014].

[34]endoftheicons (2014), “In precedent-setting case, palm oil company fined $30M for destroying orangutan forestendoftheicons, 10 January [accessed on 18 April 2014].

[35] Satriastanti, F.E. (2014) “Sustainability: Aceh peatland ruling only first step in restoring corporate damage”, Thomas Reuters, 23 January, [accessed on 19 May 2014]; endoftheicons (2014), “Palm oil company fined US$30m for clearing 1,000 hectares in Indonesiaendoftheicons, 10 January [accessed on 19 May 2014].

[36] Thomas Reuters Sustainability (2014), “Aceh’s peatland ruling only first step in restoring corporate damage”, [accessed on 19 May 2014].

[38] Ibid.; endoftheicons (2014), “Petition updates: URGENT SUPPORT NEEDED TO SAVE THE ORANGUTANS OF THE LEUSER ECOSYSTEM!”, endoftheicons, 11 April [accessed on 19 May 2014].


Donna Clifford-Jones is a volunteer writer for the Orang Utan Republik Foundation. Donna obtained a law degree in Australia and is currently a student at the University of Oklahoma. 

tourists-mtgorilla-guardian Tourism is one of the world’s fastest growing industries, and ecotourism has emerged as one of its leading sectors, estimated to be growing at a rate of between 10% and 15% per year (Matthews, 2002). Ecotourism has been defined as travel to natural areas that conserves the natural environment and helps the local people (Chin et al, 2000), and is seen increasingly as a significant tool in the conservation of endangered species, by providing local people with economic alternatives to resource exploitation (Nakamura & Nishida, 2009), raising living standards (Matthews, 2002), providing awareness and financial support for conservation (Ash, 2006) and financing protected areas (Wilkie & Carpenter, 1999). Although ecotourism has enjoyed broad support as a conservation tool, concerns have been raised that the development of tourism can negatively impact on the environment, by the development of urban infrastructure, can cause stress to animals and affect their behaviour and cause social problems for local people (Roe et al, 1997).

 

Ecotourism has become an increasingly popular tool in the conservation of the great apes, which are all either endangered or critically endangered in the wild (Beck et al, 2001, cited in Nakamura & Nishida, 2009). In Africa, ecotourism has involved habituating groups of wild gorillas and chimpanzees to human observers (Nakamura & Nishida, 2009), and such projects have thrived; In Uganda, tourism has become the principal source of foreign exchange, and gorilla and chimpanzee viewing is responsible for 52% of tourism revenue (Wrangham, 2008, cited in Nakamura & Nishida, 2009).

In Indonesia and Malaysia, home to the only remaining populations of orangutans, ecotourism has taken a different approach. Unlike chimpanzees and gorillas, which live in large social groups and spend a significant proportion of their time on the ground (Redmond, 2008), orangutans are semi-solitary and almost strictly arboreal (Gladikas, 1985). As such, they are difficult to find and observe from the ground, and even when found, have often been accused by tourists of being boring (pers. obs), on account of their slow activity patterns; orangutans in some areas spend 60.1% of their time foraging and eating, and 18.2% resting (Gladikas, 1988). Instead, tourism most often revolves around ex-captive orangutans, which are often more social than those in the wild (Yeager, 1997), and spend more time on the ground and in association with conspecifics (Snaith, 1999). Hence, they are often easier for tourists to see.

ecotouristtpnp1Tanjung Puting National Park is a 416,000 hectare park in the province of Central Kalimantan. The park hosts a wide variety of biodiversity (Brend, 2006), but is most famous for its population of Bornean orangutans; the park was estimated to comprise a population of 6000 individuals in 2004 (Singleton et al, 2004), though it is possibly less now. Orangutan rehabilitation began in Tanjung Puting in 1971, concentrated around the Camp Leakey study area (Galdikas, 1982). Ninety orangutans were released there between 1971 and 1985 (Galdikas & Ashbury, 2012), and possibly as many as 180 up to 1994 (Yeager, 1997), when orangutan rehabilitation began being moved to other areas. Today, tourists can visit ex-captive orangutans at 3 areas in the park, Camp Leakey, Tanjung Harapan and Pondok Tanggui (Brend, 2006), where orangutans are given a daily supply of milk and fruit daily at a feeding and viewing platform (Galdikas & Ashbury, 2012). Although Tanjung Puting contains a large wild population and some wild individuals visit the feeding platforms (Ibid), most tourists will only see ex-captive orangutans and their offspring (pers. obs).

Bukit Lawang is a former orangutan rehabilitation centre situated in the Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, an 830,000 hectare park situated in the Leuser Ecosystem (Dellatore, 2007; Singleton et al, 2004). Bukit Lawang acted as a Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abeli) rehabilitation project between 1972 and 1991, with 227 orangutans being associated with the project, though 51 are confirmed as having died (Dellatore, 2007). Orangutans are no longer rehabilitated at the centre, but the area remains home to a number of ex-captive orangutans and their offspring, who receive supplementary feedings of fruit and milk twice a day at a feeding platform attended by tourists (Ibid). Official Forestry Department figures show 206,963 foreign tourists visited Bukit Lawang between 1985 and 2003, an average of 10,893 per year, and 5,800 domestic tourists visited per year between 1990 and 2003 (Ibid). In total, 288,165 people visited this site in 18 years, though this might be less than half the real figure if unregistered visitors are taken in to account (Rijksen & Meijaard, 1999, cited in Dellatore, 2007).

ecotouristtpnp2The ex-captive tourist sites in both Tanjung Puting and Gunung Leuser remain controversial (Russon, 2009), and there have been longstanding fears about the effects such high densities of people have on the orangutans. In both national parks, tourists have been observed soliciting contact with orangutans, stroking them, trying to touch infants leading to aggressive encounters with mothers, shaking trees to get an orangutans attention and taunting them with fruit (pers. obs), and similar behaviours have been seen elsewhere; Bowden, 1980 reports seeing ex-captive orangutans at Sepilok in Malaysian Borneo being approached by humans, offered food, being touched, harassed, hit and kicked (cited in Snaith, 2009), and Yeager, 1997 reports that 3 released individuals in Tanjung Puting were recaptured and released in to other areas after aggressive encounters with humans.

The close proximity of humans and orangutans at such tourist sites remains a concern; the close phylogenetic relationship between humans and non-human primates means pathogen exchange is a risk (Gillespie et al, 2008), and the great apes are particularly susceptible (Homsy, 1999). A number of cases of illnesses in apes have been shown to be linked to human respiratory viruses and bacteria, including influenza, measles, mumps, pneumococcal pneumonia and herpes viruses (Ibid), and in the Virunga volcanoes in Africa, over 81% of gorillas in 7 groups used for research and tourism purposes suffered from an influenza-like disease, with 6 adults dying from it in 1988 alone (Reynolds, 2006, cited in Isabirye-Basuta & Lwanga, 2008).

Surveys at the Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre in Malaysia show that a significant portion of tourists that visit this centre, which totalled 97,367 in 2006 (Muehlenbein et al, 2010), are ill and potentially infectious at the time they visit, and risked infecting the animals, local inhabitants of the area and Sepilok rangers (Ibid). Such diseases not only pose a threat to the ex-captive orangutans, but risk spreading to the wild populations, which would have no such natural resistance. Although authors have argued that the largely solitary nature of wild orangutans would inhibit disease transmission (Galdikas & Briggs, 1999), ex-captive orangutans at Tanjung Puting have been shown to be social, often travel together, and have been observed soliciting play with wild females and their offspring and climbing in and out of their nests (Yeager, 1997), and that ex-captives are exposed to human diseases and that respiratory diseases and skin infections have been transmitted between individuals (Ibid).

The risk of behavioural changes in wildlife also remains a concern at ecotourism sites. Bukit Lawang, Sepilok and Tanjung Puting all report higher infant mortality in the offspring of ex-captives than is seen in wild orangutans (Dellatore et al, 2009; Russon, 2009), and cases of ex-captive females at Bukit Lawang cannibalising their offspring, a previously undocumented behaviour in wild orangutans, may have been influenced by stress caused by the high concentration of humans in the area (Dellatore et al, 2009).

Modifications in primate behaviour are seen in numerous other primate ecotourism sites. An examination of the impacts tourists have had on wild howler monkeys in the 400 hectare Lamanai Archaeological Reserve in Belize, which attracted 21,499 visitors in 2000 (Grossberg et al, 2003), has shown that 25% of all tourists have observed other tourists or guides interacting with howler monkeys, shaking branches, trying to make them roar, offering food or making physical contact with them (Ibid), and that such provocation disrupted activity patterns, with juveniles, females and infants avoiding provocation by moving higher in to the canopy, while adult and sub-adult males responded by roaring or approaching the humans, moving to the ground to bite people, or grabbing bags (Ibid). Intense roaring against humans has also provoked neighbouring howler monkey groups to either roar back or approach (Ibid). As howler monkeys are highly territorial, spend the majority of their time in the trees, roaring is believed to act as spacing mechanism, and competition between adult males is intense (Redmond, 2008; Di Fore & Campbell, 2007), such behaviour is a concern.

Instances of primates descending to the ground and biting or attacking humans have been observed at a number of primate ecotourism sites (Fuentes et al, 2007), and often involves provisioning of food, which can increase levels of aggression (Westin, 2007; Hsu et al, 2009). In India, monkeys around Hindu temples are given hand-outs by local people and tourists, and often become aggressive when food is denied, tearing clothes, biting, and raiding pantries and hotel rooms (Wolfe, 2002, cited in Westin, 2007). In Tanzania, vervet monkeys have been seen waiting at picnic tables and public toilets to ambush tourists to take their food (Ibid). Fuentes et al, 2007 found that at the Padangtegal Hindu temple on the Indonesian island of Bali, the strongest enticement for contact between tourists and the resident long-tailed macaques was the presence of food or the suggestion of it, in the form of plastic bags or items wrapped in banana leaves, and though there are signs warning tourists against feeding, such aggressive encounters are common, with 11.4% resulting in bites.

macaquechina5ftoffgroundMacaques have the widest distribution of any non-human primate (Thierry, 2007), and their home ranges frequently overlap with humans and tourist sites (Fuentes, 2004). Conflict between humans and macaques often leads to injury in both species, and there is a great risk of disease transmission; macaques can carry diseases that can transfer to humans, including simian foamy virus, herpes B and simian retrovirus, and humans carry influenza and respiratory pathogens that can spread to macaques (McCarthy et al, 2009). Wild Tibetan macaques can be seen by tourists at two sites in China, Mt. Emei and Mt. Huangshan. Examinations in to macaque-human interactions at these sites shows that humans initiate contact with macaques far more than macaques do with humans, with pointing, waving, making facial threats and slapping the railings the most common observed human behaviours (Ibid). Although humans and macaques were found to provoke each other, many of the human behaviours observed were repeated, indicating tourists were deliberately antagonising macaques and waiting for a reaction (Ibid). The macaques at Mt. Emei regularly rob food and other possessions from visitors, injuries are common and 10 people even died in a period of 8 years as a result of conflict encounters (Ibid). Such observations have also been seen at macaque tourist sites in Taiwan and Gibraltar, where humans initiate contact with the monkeys far more than macaques do with humans (Ibid; Hsu et al, 2009).

 

gibraltarbarbarymacaque-wikipediaAggressive primate encounters can not only be a danger to the tourists involved, but the increasing habituation of primates and corresponding boldness can create problems for local people; monkeys that have been habituated to the presence of tourists often seek out contact with humans, and raid crops and garbage bins (Muehlenbein et al, 2010). In Gibraltar, the increase in tourist activity around the resident Barbary macaques from 1960 onwards, to around 800,000 people per year, led to a rise in illegal provisioning, and taxi drivers and tour guides encouraging closer interactions between macaques and tourists, often so tourists could get better photos (Fuentes et al, 2007). Today, people in the tourist industry have a vested interest in conserving the macaques, but many residents in Gibraltar complain that they raid bins and occasionally kitchens looking for food, and have actively called for them to be removed and for some to be culled (Ibid).

Local people often suffering as a result of conservation projects is not a new phenomenon; the development of national parks and protected areas have traditionally excluded local people from those areas, effecting their income and traditional subsistence methods, and creating negative attitudes to conservation (Hartter & Goldman, 2010). Ecotourism has aimed to rectify this, however, by bringing economic benefits to local communities.

Kibale National Park is a 79,500 hectare park in Western Uganda (Hartter, 2009) and its population of wild chimpanzees attract tourists to the area (Lepp, 2008), which is one of the most densely populated in Sub-Saharan Africa (Lepp & Holland, 2006), with 262 individuals per km2 on the west side of the park, and 335 individual per km2 on the east side (Hartter, 2009). The predominant subsistence crops in the area are bananas, maize, beans and cassava (Ibid). Authors working in the area have shown that 74% of local people have reported problems with crop raiding and wild animals killing small livestock, with red-tail and vervet monkeys the most common nuisance animalwith other species of monkey and elephants also cited as problems (Ibid). A tourism project has been developed in the small, rural village of Bigodi, which borders the park, which attracts an average of 75 tourists per month and centres on an area of swampland which had always been considered a nuisance to locals but offers visitors a perfect view of different species of monkeys and birds (Lepp, 2008). Despite the high levels of poverty in the area and the need for income, residents were initially deeply anxious of allowing tourists in to their community, and considered the project a plan by westerners to steal land and resources (Ibid). Although residents’ views have since warmed to tourism, conservation of the swamp has seen wildlife increase and a corresponding increase in the levels of crop raiding (Ibid). Although tourism has been successful and provides employment for young men, farming is still the principal subsistence strategy in the village, and crop raiding therefore not only threatens people’s subsistence and economic activities, but has been noted to effect education in the village, as children are made to miss school to guard crops (Ibid).

Such findings are not isolated. More than one million people visit Costa Rica every year, and the tourism industry is heavily promoted and has an annual turnover of over $1,200 million (Koens et al, 2009). Nature tourism in the country is considered successful, but an examination of four tourist sites in Costa Rica found that, at two sites, the development of infrastructure for tourism purposes had resulted in vegetation damage, disturbance to wildlife, and had increased the risk of erosion, with a corresponding loss of biodiversity, and air pollution had increased as a result of higher numbers of vehicles entering the area (Ibid). The economic improvements tourism can bring vary depending on who owns accommodation and services used, and whether money stays in the area, but an increase in tourism was seen to bring increased education, medical care and increased levels of female empowerment (Ibid), although community organisation had diminished, alcohol and drug consumption had increased and some areas had seen in an increase in crime (Ibid).

The examples shown in this article demonstrate some of the challenges and complexities inherent in tourism involving species that are often endangered and highly intelligent, opportunistic and capable of aggression (Hadiswoyo, 2008) and live in areas of high human densities and low economic activity. They are not, however, representative of all primate ecotourism projects.

Great ape ecotourism remains challenging, and as demonstrated by Tanjung Puting and Bukit Lawang, is difficult when the subject is an ex-captive, but tourism with other great apes has had some notable successes; tourism is regarded as one of the reasons the number of mountain gorillas are increasing (Redmond, 2008), and gorilla trekking is the most popular activity for international tourists travelling to Rwanda (Spenceley et al, 2010), with 16,937 people travelling to the Virunga National Park in 2008 to see the gorillas (Ibid). The tourism industry around this park in Rwanda is estimated to be around $42.7 million, in terms of turnover for accommodation, tour operators, shopping and other excursionsand the park itself directly employs at least 180 people (Ibid). The success of gorilla tourism, in business terms, and the increasing economic viability of the mountain gorilla population have led protecting them to be considered economically important for the government and local businesses (Redmond, 2008). Such an attitude has also been seen in Tanjung Puting in Indonesia, which suffered widespread logging during the crisis that followed the resignation of General Soeharto in 1998; at its height, it is believed up to 800 ramin wood logs were being taken out of the park every day (EIA, 2003). The only part of the park that remained relatively undisturbed was the Camp Leakey study area, the principal tourist area in the park (OFI, 1999; G. Shapiro, personal communication).

The threat of disease transmission remains a concern in all areas where humans and non-human primates come in to contact; as well as habituated gorillas, chimpanzees living at the famous Gombe National Park in Tanzania have been shown to be at risk of tuberculosis from people, and have suffered in the past from polio and a respiratory disease that killed 11 chimpanzees (Wallis & Lee, 1999), and a female researcher in the Ivory Coast caught the Ebola virus from an infected chimpanzee in 1994 (Goldberg et al, 2007). While exposure at tourism sites is always a risk, it could be reduced by the enforcement of existing rules that govern primate viewing, or strengthening of those that are unsatisfactory; Homsy, 1999, recommends limiting the number of visits to gorillas, reducing the number of tourists per group, increasing the distance between humans and gorillas, enforcing rules on eating, litter and faeces disposal and stronger enforcement of rules forbidding tourists exhibiting illnesses.

Enforcing existing rules would also help mitigate aggressive encounters at sites involving monkeys. All reserves in Gibraltar that house macaques have signs stating that feeding them is illegal, punishable by a £500 fine, and warning humans of potential dangers (Fuentes et al, 2007). In Bali, while staff tentatively try and discourage contact between humans and macaques, they rarely directly intercede, unless aggression occurs (Ibid). Singapore has an education and awareness programme in areas where humans and macaques come in to contact, and sometimes enforces fines and penalties for people caught feeding them (McCarthy et al, 2009). As interactions have been shown to be more aggressive when food is involved, similar rules and enforcement should be developed at all ecotourism sites. Enforcement of rules is often difficult for park rangers, for cultural reasons (pers. obs), and could possibly lead to arguments with tourists, but strongly regulated tourist sites would likely decrease aggressive encounters and make primate viewing a much safer activity; Grossberg et al, 2003 specifically recommend education and enforcement as a way of reducing human-howler monkey conflict in Belize.

The greatest success for ecotourism projects will likely come from the involvement of local people. Increasing efforts have been made to ensure local people benefit from wildlife tourism (Aharikundira & Tweheyo, 2011), but communities adjacent to protected areas still suffer from high levels of conflict and, particularly, crop raiding (Ibid; Distefano, 2005). Bwindi National Park in Uganda has a large population of mountain gorillas and a lucrative tourism trade, but habituated gorillas regularly raid local farms (Aharikundira & Tweheyo, 2011). To mitigate this conflict, gorilla conservation organisations have organised special response units to help protect crops and limit retaliatory action, which authors show have reduced raiding and attacks on humans (Ibid). Such projects enjoy community support (Ibid). However, local people complain that park authorities are so focused on gorillas that they remain indifferent to crop damage by other animals, which is often more severe (Ibid).

As the case studies have shown, primate tourism sites can often bring development which negatively impacts on the environment, and the influx of large amounts of people can change traditional cultural and social behaviours, lead to an increase in crime, and can lead to an increase in prices that exclude local people from areas they have traditionally used (Koens et al, 2009). However, they have been shown to also bring medical facilities and increased education (Ibid) and can help the poor; revenue from tourism in Rwanda has not only helped alleviate poverty and provide employment (Spenceley et al, 2010) but has also contributed to reconciliation and peace in the country (Alluri, 2009).

An examination in to ecotourism sites worldwide by Matthews, 2002 showed that the most successful ecotourism projects were those with the most efficient management structure, that efficiency was improved by the involvement and training of local people, and that resources had to be shared equally to improve attitudes to conservation areas and reduce conflict in and between communities, and that those sites struggling with community support were those lacking community development projects, had inefficient management and where resources were denied to local people and revenue was often taken out of the area. This research is corroborated by evidence from the macaque tourist sites in Bali and Gibraltar; in Bali, despite aggressive encounters and instances of crop raiding, local people remain tolerant of the macaques and supportive of the ecotourism project, largely because the majority of tourism revenue remains in the village and is distributed by the village council for infrastructure and cultural projects, while in Gibraltar, a richer and more developed area, the government receives all entrance fees and revenue from the tourist sites, and local support has wavered (Fuentes et al, 2007).

On paper, ecotourism can appear relatively simple. In reality, it is a difficult process that in many cases struggles to combine habitat and wildlife conservation with the reasonable expectations and needs of the local people who depend on that habitat, and often come in to conflict with its wildlife. Only by including local people in the conception and management of ecotourism projects and making sure revenue is distributed equally can such projects be successful, and only by eco-tourists strictly adhering to the rules and regulations of tourism sites can such sites fully safeguard animals from diseases, abnormal behavioural changes and heightened levels of aggression.

References

Aharikundira, M. & Tweheyo, M. (2011). Human-wildlife conflict and its implication for conservation around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. USDA Forest Service Proceedings

Alluri, R.M. (2009). The role of tourism in post-conflict Rwanda. Working Paper, Swiss Peace Foundation

Ash, G.L. (2006). Ecotourism and interpretation in Sri Lanka: visitor perceptions of the local primates. MsC dissertation. Oxford Brookes University

Brend, S. (2006). Tanjung Putting National Park: Orangutans and their habitat. The Orangutan Foundation & Yayorin

Chin, C.L.M., Moore, S.A, Wallington, T.J. & Dowling, R.K. (2000). Ecotourism in Bako National Park, Borneo: Visitors’ perspectives on environmental impacts and their management. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 8, pp. 20-35

Dellatore, D.F. (2007). Behavioural health of reintroduced orangutans (Pongo abeli) in Bukit Lawang, Sumatra, Indonesia. MSc thesis, Oxford Brookes University

Dellatore, D.F., Waitt, C.D. & Foitova, I. (2009). Two cases of mother-infant cannibalism in orangutans. Primates

Di Fiore, A. & Campbell, C.J. (2007). The atelines: variation in ecology, behaviour and social organisation. In Wich, S.A., Utami Atmoko, S.S., Mitra Setia, T. & Van Schaik, C.P. editors. Orangutans: Geographic Variation in Behavioral Ecology and Conservation. Oxford University Press

Distefano, E. (2005). Human-wildlife conflict worldwide: collection of case studies, analysis of management strategies and good practices. Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, Rome

EIA. (2003). Illegal logging in Tanjung Puting National Park. Environmental Investigation Agency

Fuentes, A. (2004). Is monkey business a valid enterprise? The political ecology of macaque ‘ecotourism’. Folia Primatologica, 75, pp. 43-44

Fuentes, A., Shaw, E. & Cortes, J. (2007). Qualitative assessment of macaque tourist sites in Padangtegal, Bali, Indonesia and the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, Gibraltar. International Journal of Primatology

Galdikas, B.M.F. (1982). Orangutan tool use at Tanjung Puting Reserve, Central Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan Tengah). Journal of Human Evolution, 10, pp. 19-33

Galdikas, B.M.F. (1988). Orangutan diet, range and activity at Tanjung Puting, Central Borneo. International Journal of Primatology, Vol. 9, No. 1

Galdikas, B.M.F. (1985). Orangutan sociality at Tanjung Puting. American Journal of Primatology, 9, pp. 101-119

Galdikas, B.M. & Ashbury, A. (2012). Reproductive parameters of female orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) 1971-2011, a 40 year study at Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Primates

Galdikas, B.M.F & Briggs, N. (1999). Orangutan odyssey. Harry N. Abrams, Inc, USA

Gillespie, T.R., Nunn, C.L. & Leendertz, F.H. (2008). Integrative approaches to the study of primate infectious diseases: Implications for biodiversity conservation and global health. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, 51, pp. 53-69

Goldberg, T.L., Gillespie, T.R., Rwego, I.B., Wheeler, E., Estoff, E.L. & Chapman, C.A. (2007). Patterns of gastrointestinal bacterial exchange between chimpanzees and humans involved in research and tourism in western Uganda. Biological Conservation, 135, pp. 511-517

Grossberg, R., Treves, A. & Naughton-Treves, L. (2003). The incidental ecotourist: measuring visitor impacts on endangered howler monkeys at a Belizean archaeological site. Environmental Conservation, 30 (1), pp. 40-51

Hartter, J. (2009). Attitudes of rural communities towards wetlands and forest fragments around Kibale National Park, Uganda. Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 14, pp. 433-447

Hartter, J. & Goldman, A. (2010). Local responses to a forest park in western Uganda: alternative narratives on fortress conservation. Oryx, 45, pp. 60-68

Homsy, J. (1999). Ape tourism and human diseases: How close should we get?. Report of a Consultancy for the International Gorilla Conservation Programme

Hsu, M.J., Kao, C.C. & Agoramoorthy, G. (2009). Interactions between visitors and Formosan macaques (Macaca cyclopis) at Shou-Shan Nature Park, Taiwan. American Journal of Primatology, 71, pp. 214-222

Isabirye-Basuta, G.M. & Lwanga, J.S. (2008). Primate populations and their interactions with changing habitats. International Journal of Primatology, 29, pp. 35-48

Koens, J.F., Dieperink, C. & Miranda, M. (2009). Ecotourism as a development strategy: experiences from Costa Rica. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 11, pp.1225-1237

Lepp, A. (2008). Attitudes toward initial tourism development in a community with no prior tourism experience: the case of Bigodi, Uganda. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Vol. 16, No. 1

Lepp, A. & Holland, S. (2006). A comparison of attitudes towards state led conservation and community based conservation in the village of Bigodi, Uganda. Society and Natural Resources, 19, pp. 609-623

Matthews, E.J. (2002). Ecotourism: Are current practices delivering desired outcomes? A comparative case study analysis. MA thesis. Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University

McCarthy, M.S., Matheson, M.D., Lester, J.D., Sheeran, L.K., Li, J.H. & Wagner, R.S. (2009). Sequences of Tibetan macaque (Macaca thibetana) and tourist behaviour at Mt. Huangshan, China. Primate Conservation, 24, pp. 145-151

Muehlenbein, M.P., Martinez, L.A., Lemke, A.A., Ambu, L., Nathan, S., Alsisto, S., & Sakong, R. (2010). Unhealthy travellers present challenges to sustainable primate ecotourism. Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease, 8, pp. 169-175

Nakamura, M. & Nishida, T. (2009). Chimpanzee tourism in relation to the viewing regulations at the Mahale Mountains National Park, Tanzania. Primate Conservation, 24, pp. 85-90

OFI. (2003). A message from Dr Birute Galdikas. Orangutan Foundation International

Redmond, I. (2008). The primate family tree. Firefly Books Ltd, UK

Roe, D., Leader-Williams, N. & Dalal-Clayton, B. (1997). Take only photographs, leave only footprints: the environmental impacts of wildlife tourism. IIED Wildlife & Development Series, No. 10

Russon, A.E. (2009). Orangutan rehabilitation and reintroduction. In Wich, S.A., Utami Atmoko, S.S., Mitra Setia, T. & Van Schaik, C.P. editors. Orangutans: Geographic Variation in Behavioral Ecology and Conservation. Oxford University Press

Singleton, I., Wich, S., Husson, S., Stephens, S., Utami Atmoko, S., Leighton, M., Rosen, N., Traylor-Holzer, K., Lacy, R. & Byers, O. (2004). Orangutan population and habitat viability assessment: Final report. IUCN/SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, Apple Valley, MN

Snaith, T. (1999). The behaviour of free-ranging ex-captive orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park, Indonesia. MA thesis, University of Calgary

Spenceley, A., Habyalimana, S., Tusabe, R. & Mariza, D. (2010). Benefits to the poor from gorilla tourism in Rwanda. Development Southern Africa, Vol. 27, No. 5

Thierry, B. (2007). The macaques: A double layered social organisation. In Campbell, C.J., Fuentes, A., Mackinnon, K.C., Panger, M. & Bearder S.K. Primates in Perspective. Oxford University Press

Wallis, J. & Lee, D.R. (1999). Primate conservation: The prevention of disease transmission. International Journal of Primatology, Vol. 20, No. 6

Westin, J.L. (2007). Effects of tourism on the behaviour and health of red howler monkeys (Alouatta seniculus) in Suriname. PhD dissertation, University of Michigan

Wilkie, D.S. & Carpenter, J.F. (1999). Can nature tourism help finance protected areas in the Congo basin?. Oryx, Vol. 33, No. 4, pp. 332-338

Yeager, C.P. (1997). Orangutan rehabilitation in Tanjung Puting National Park, Indonesia. Conservation Biology, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp. 802-805

 

palmoil1The spread of palm oil plantations and the developing palm oil industry is both one of the greatest threats to the survival of the orangutans, and an important driver of future economic growth in Indonesia and Malaysia. Despite repeated and high profile warnings of the toll the development of the industry is taking on the regions biodiversity, the number of plantations continues to increase.

Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis), which is native to the tropical rainforests of Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Togo, Angola and the Congo Basin, in Africa, all tropical countries that experience high levels of rainfall, to which oil palm is suited.

The processing of oil palm fruit has been practiced in Africa for thousands of years, and is an essential ingredient in much of traditional West African cuisine (FAO, 2008). Its history as an agricultural commodity is, however, relatively recent.  Fruits of the oil palm tree were first taken from Africa to the Americas and the Far East between the 14th and 17th centuries, and the international trade in palm oil began at the beginning of the 19th century, with palm oil becoming the principle cargo of slave ships after the abolition of the slave trade. As living standards in Europe increased during the industrial revolution, demand for palm oil increased, principally for use in soaps and other household products, and as an industrial lubricant. In the 1870’s, exports of palm oil from the Niger Delta were 25,000 to 30,000 tonnes per year, and by 1911, the British West African Territories exported 87,700 tonnes annually (FAO, 2008). The export of palm oil kernel also began in 1832, and by 1911, the British West African Territories were exporting 157,000 tonnes, 75% of which was from Nigeria, which was the largest exporter of palm oil until it was surpassed by Malaysia in 1934 (FAO, 2008).

The oil palm tree was first introduced to Malaysia as an ornamental plant in 1875, and was first planted as a commercial crop in 1917 (Basiron, 2007), and its use and cultivation has grown exponentially ever since. Areas under oil palm in Malaysia have increased from 54,000 hectares in 1960 to 4.05 million hectares in 2005, reflecting an annual growth of 10.06% (Basiron, 2007).

In both Indonesia and Malaysia, the area planted with oil palm has trebled from 24,000 km2 in 1990 to 83,700 km2 in 2007, an average annual increase of around 3,500 km2, and it is estimated that at least 55% of oil palm expansion in these countries came at the expanse of natural forests, with the remainder obtained from the conversion of pre-existing croplands such as rubber and cocoa (Nantha & Tisdell, 2008). In 2007 alone, Malaysia and Indonesia made US$14 billion and US$5.5 billion from palm oil export revenue, and the industry directly and indirectly employs around a million people in both of these countries (Nantha & Tisdell, 2008).

Palm oil is commonly found in three varieties: Dura, Pissifera and Tenera, which is a hybrid of Dura and Pisifera, and is the one most commonly planted today (Kubota et al, 2009). Oil palm trees need deep, well-structured soil to grow on, with an uninterrupted supply of clean water, and can reach a height of around 60 feet, producing  fruit bunches that weigh between 10 and 25kg and contain several hundred fruitlets, which are orange-red in color, ripening to dark (Kubota et al, 2009). Palm oil trees usually begin bearing fruit bunches of sufficient size after 30 months (Basiron, 2007), and are harvested by removing ripe bunches using a chisel on a short pole, or a sickle on a larger pole for taller fruit. On average, two or three bunches are harvested from each tree, and harvesting rounds are usually organized throughout the year so that the palm is visited every 2 weeks. The trees produce fruit for 30 years, with the yield decreasing over time (Kubota et al, 2009; Barison, 2007).

Although usually referred to generically as just ‘palm oil’, the fruits of the oil palm tree actually produce two different types of oil, palm oil and palm oil kernel. Palm oil fruits are comprised of an outer skin called the exocarp; a fleshy interior from which the palm fruit oil is squeezed; an inner nut called the endocarp, and a kernel inside the nut from which palm kernel oil is squeezed (Kabota et al, 2009). The two oils are extracted by careful separation during the milling process. Palm oil is used predominantly in food products, while palm kernel oil is used mainly as an ingredient in soap, detergents and toiletry products, and accounts for about 10% of the quantity of palm oil produced. The kernel also yields a residual product called palm kernel meal, which is used as an ingredient in animal feed (Basiron, 2007).

The palm oil trees high yield, cheap cost and the fact that the yield is semi solid at room temperature, so does not need to be hardened to be useful as a shortening, has made palm oil the most widely traded oil on the international market. Highly versatile, it is used in a variety of household products, from margarines and shortening to cooking oil, soups, baked goods and confectionary products. It can also be a substitute for hard animal fats, such as butter and lard, and for soy, olive or canola liquid vegetable oils. Chocolate products such as candy bars and cake icing use palm oil as a substitute for cocoa butter, and it is often found in ice cream, peanut butter, coffee whitener, canned cream soups, potato chips, milk, trail mix and other snack foods (Brown & Jacobson, 2005). WWF estimates that 50% of all packaged supermarket products contain palm oil.

Finding a way to balance the spread of palm oil plantations and the increasing demand for palm oil, palm kernel oil and palm kernel meal on the international market is one of the greatest challenges for conservationists working in Indonesia and Malaysia. Condemning the whole industry, or hoping that it simply fades away, is unrealistic, so conservationists have increasingly begun working with the industry, encouraging the concept of sustainable palm oil.

On paper, all oil palm plantations should already be sustainable, as their development is strongly regulated by laws in both Indonesia and Malaysia. In Indonesia, which is home to the largest populations of orangutans and the most substantial tracts of rainforest in South East Asia, no significant land development activities are permitted before the company has obtained a valid Plantation Business Permit (IUP), which should only be awarded after an Environmental Impact Assessment has been completed and approved. According to Indonesian law, developing an oil palm plantation without an EIA should result in any IUP that has been issued being revoked (Greenpeace, 2009). Indonesian law also stipulates that any area that contains peat deeper than 3 meters should automatically be afforded legally protected status, and that if any concessions contain forested areas, companies are forbidden from cutting trees or harvesting and collecting any forest products until they have obtained a Timber Cutting Permit (IPK), which is issued at a local level by either the governor or the district head (Greenpeace, 2009). As orangutans are a protected species throughout the country, their presence in any forested area should, on paper, ensure its protection. In reality, these laws are routinely flouted.

rspo-logo1In order to ensure laws are adhered to, and to encourage sustainability throughout the industry, in 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was formed. Made up of a consortium of NGO’s and palm oil producers, the voluntary organisation hopes to encourage palm oil producers to adopt practices and guidelines that would lead to palm oil production becoming environmentally and socially sustainable. Hence, by joining the organisation companies are obliged to comply with the RSPO’s ‘Principles & Criteria’, which stipulate that all palm oil producers commit to transparency, comply with all laws and regulations of the countries they are working in, commit to long term economic viability, use appropriate best practices, behave in an environmentally responsible way and conserve natural resources and biodiversity, consider employees and local communities and adhere to responsible development. If all these criteria are reached, palm oil producers are encouraged to have their palm oil plantations certified by the RSPO as sustainable, which would allow them to use the RSPO logo and advertise their palm oil as such.

Launched with much fanfare and with the support of the majority of rainforest conservation charities, including OURF, the RSPO has tried to regulate the industry and bring the issue of palm oil and its sustainability to consumers. However, it has also been dogged by accusations of ineffectiveness, infighting, lax regulation and competing interests. At the heart of these issues is the debate over whether palm oil can ever be truly sustainable, and whether such a complicated extraction, processing and distribution process can ever be properly certified.  To try and combat this, the RSPO offers four different categories of certification, with different levels of certification depending on how thoroughly the palm oil can be traced from source to distribution. The most popular certification method is the Greenpalm scheme, an RSPO endorsed trading scheme that enables palm oil producers to earn a premium for using sustainable production methods, regardless of whether their product is exported. RSPO-certified producers are issued certificates for each tonne of certified palm oil that they produce. End-users can then 'cover' their use of palm oil by buying the certificates from GreenPalm, in the process supporting sustainable palm oil production (GreenPalm website).

An issue that many NGO’s have raised with the RSPO is its lack of ability to properly enforce rules, and the danger that RSPO membership is becoming a way for palm oil producers to present to the buying public a veneer of sustainability without any actual desire to produce their palm oil sustainably.  In 2009, controversy arose in New Zealand after Cadbury began putting palm oil in its popular dairy milk bars, prompting a public backlash by consumers and conservationists in the country. Cadbury eventually relented, and announced it would revert to using traditional cocoa butter, but assured consumers that all the palm oil they used was certified and sustainably produced, because it had independent GreenPalm certification. While for many this would be reassuring, closer examination revealed that the palm oil used was most likely not sustainable; as mentioned in the paragraph above, GreenPalm certificates are given if a plantation proves they are producing palm oil sustainably. However, this just means that the company has at least one sustainable plantation, and the GreenPalm certificate issued can be sold old to another company. The palm oil produced on that certified plantation is not sold or kept separately; it is simply put in to the same tanker as the unsustainably sourced palm oil, and shipped to manufacturers. In essence, the GreenPalm certificate does not guarantee consumers are consuming sustainable palm oil (The Guardian, 2009).

In 2009, First Resources, a Hong Kong based palm oil company and member of the RSPO, was found by the NGO International Animal Rescue to be clearing land illegally in West Kalimantan, and was responsible for a number of orangutan deaths, and for the capture of infant orangutans. After these orangutans were rescued, an official complaint was made to the RSPO. While this company does not have any of its plantations certified as being sustainable, its membership of the RSPO states it must adhere to the Principles and Criteria of the organisation. Although the RSPO agreed to look in to the matter, three years later First Resources are still a member of the RSPO, there is no mention of the complaint on the RSPO website, and the company is free to advertise its membership of the RSPO on its own website, under its commitment to sustainability initiatives, even though it has made no effort whatsoever to behave sustainably. While the difference between being an RSPO member and having your production being RSPO certified are two very different things, for consumers, this is not always clear, and for many, the RSPO is a smokescreen, behind which palm oil producers sit (RAN, 2011).

The RSPO, in response, points out that it is a voluntary organisation, and is limited in its capacity to fully sanction companies that break its rules. It also must deal with the competing interests of the palm oil producers and distributers that are among its members. In 2011, IOI Group, one of Malaysia’s leading producers of palm oil, was reported to the RSPO by a number of NGO’s after evidence was collated showing IOI was responsible for illegally clearing large tracts of forest in Kalimantan. The RSPO responded by announcing that the company had breached its code of conduct, and granted it a limit by which time it must provide answers to the accusations. Although there was criticism that the RSPO had not done more, the fact that it had publicly criticised an RSPO member was rare, and came a year after the RSPO had publicly rebuked PT Smart Tbk and its parent company Golden-Agri Resources for breaches of the RSPO rules, the first time it had done so (Reuters, 2010). While these actions were welcomed by conservationists, they angered the Malaysian government and palm oil body, who in 2011 announced plans to form its own sustainable palm oil regulatory body, implying that the RSPO was becoming too strict (Mongabay, 2011). While this has been interpreted by some as a sign that Malaysian, and Indonesian, palm oil producers are becoming increasingly aware of the issue of sustainable palm oil, it is feared that if companies pull away from the RSPO, it would make the industries only recognised regulatory body largely irrelevant.

Although it needs improvement, the RSPO is currently the only organisation able to regulate an industry that poses the greatest threat to orangutan populations in the wild. As the use of palm oil increases and a greater threat is placed on desirable lowland tropical forests, it is more imperative than ever that business leaders are encouraged to behave in an environmentally responsible way, and suppliers are put under pressure, by both NGO’s and individual members of the public, to ensure the palm oil they use in their products does not come from plantations established at the expense of rainforests and endangered species.


References

Basiron, Y. (2007). Palm oil production through sustainable plantations. European Journal of Lipid Science & Technology, Vol. 109, No. 4, pp. 289-295

Brown, E. & Jacobson, M. (2005). Cruel Oil: How palm oil harms health, rainforest & wildlife. Center for science in the public interest.

FAO. (2008). Small-scale palm oil processing in Africa. Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations, Rome

Greenpeace. (2009). Illegal forest clearance and RSPO greenwash: Case studies of Sinar Mas. Greenpeace

The Guardian. (2009). 'Green palm oil' claims land Cadbury's in sticky chocolate mess. The Guardian, UK

Kubota E., Mayo, J., O'Brien, K., Rocheleau, A. & Watthanakornchai, K. (2009). Palm oil processing recommendations to support new life project for underprivileged children. Worcester Polytechnic Institute & Chulalongkorn University, BSc project

Mongabay (2011)Malaysian government to launch RSPO rival for palm oil certificationMongabay

Nantha, H.S. & Tisdell, C. (2009). The orangutan-oil palm conflict: economic constraints & opportunities for conservation. Biodiversity & Conservation, Vol. 18, Issue 2, pp. 487-502

RAN. (2011)The Great RSPO Membership Myth: Why Buying from RSPO Members Is MeaninglessRainforest Action Network.

Reuters. (2010). Sustainable palm oil body censures Indonesia's PT SMART. Reuters

     
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