Photo: nelzajamal/Shutterstock

Here's an Update on Southeast Asia's Palm Oil Crisis, and It's Not All Bad.

by Nicholas Burns Aug 26, 2016

EXACTLY A YEAR AGO, while most people around Europe and the US were blissfully enjoying their summer holidays, one of the worst environmental catastrophes of the 21st century was unfolding in Southeast Asia. Slash and burn forest fires, started to clear rainforest for palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, spread quickly and out of control.

The rainforest soil is rich in peat and organic matters, creating slow-burning fires that couldn’t be extinguished for months – the result was a toxic cloud, the Haze, that enveloped most of Southeast Asia for the best part of September and October, killing and displacing wildlife and people, and damaging the health of millions of local residents. It has been estimated that carbon emissions as a result of the fires surpassed those of the entire EU.

The Haze, Palm Oil and Environmental Implications

Yet, this tragedy went largely unreported everywhere but in Southeast Asia, where the consequences of the Haze were visible every time one looked out of the window. Media outlets worldwide were more concerned to report about Beyonce’s latest outfit or Donald Trump’s antics, and haze-related news hardly ever made the front page.

The consequences of the fires and the Haze on local wildlife were catastrophic. It has been estimated that over a third of surviving orangutans have been directly threatened by the fires and their environmental consequences – adding to the long list of threats to their survival. The fires pushed orangutans onto the fringes of the dwindling patches of rainforest where they live, causing them to seek refuge onto the plantations, just to be shot or scared away by the guards.

Orangutans are the symbol of Southeast Asian environmental destruction at the hands of palm oil corporations. Images of a pregnant orang clinging to a lone tree while the forest around her was felled have moved the world, contributing to raising awareness of their endangered status and struggle for their survival.

Orangutans only live on two islands, Borneo and Sumatra. Borneo is the better known and most visited of the two, especially Malaysian Borneo – places like Sepilok and Semenggoh Rehabilitation Centers are on the bucket list of many travelers. Therefore, the conservation spotlight has been on Bornean Orangutans for far longer than their Sumatran cousins, who face similar (if not worse) threats.

Sumatra’s Plight

The numbers of surviving Sumatran orangutans are estimated to be about 15,000, whereas Bornean orangutans exceed 50,000. The main threat that Sumatran Orangutans face is – once again – habitat loss. Once spread throughout the island, they are now mostly found around the Aceh and North Sumatra regions, around the northernmost tip of the island.

Nine existing populations of Sumatran orangutans have been counted; but only seven of them have prospects of long-term survival, numbering 250 or more individuals. Only three of these groups contain more than 1,000 apes. Recently, orangutans that were confiscated from the illegal trade or as pets are being reintroduced to Bukit Tigapuluh National Park, in the central Riau region. Thus far, individuals number around 70 and reproduction has been successful.

However, orangutans are not the only species struggling for survival because of palm oil-related habitat loss. Dozens of endemic Sumatran species are on the brink of extinction – it has been estimated that only up to 400 Sumatran tigers are left in the wild. The Sumatran Rhinoceros, Sun Bear, Pygmy Elephant, Clouded Leopard and Proboscis Monkey may also be lost soon if deforestation continues at the current rate of 250,000 hectares per year.

The Riau region is one of the worst in terms of deforestation in Sumatra. It has been estimated that up to 40 percent of forests have been lost to palm oil concessions since 2001. Even the two national parks in the region, Bukit Tigapuluh and Tesso Nilo, have also suffered extensive forest loss, due to corruption and weak law enforcement. Specifically, Tesso Nilo has been plagued by encroachment due to an abundance of illegal palm oil plantations, some of which have been linked to giant food multinationals – despite their proclaimed efforts to cease all relations with illegal palm oil suppliers.

Zamrud, a new Indonesian National Park

However, there is some good news. In occasion of World Environment Day last July, a wildlife reserve in Riau has been declared Indonesia’s newest national park. Zamrud National Park is located in one of the top producing areas for palm oil. The soil of the area is rich in peat, making the area of the former wildlife reserve a target for encroachers. Increasing amounts of land were lost to palm oil plantation year after year – until the government decided to act, creating the National Park.

Mr. Syamsuar, head of the Syah district where the new park is located, commented as follows: “The forest at Giam Siak Kecil [a nearby peatland area] has been destroyed by encroachment. If encroachers run out of room there, they will certainly move on to Zamrud. Even now, certain parties are attempting to claim land on the periphery of Zamrud. It is just a matter of time. That’s why we need to start protecting it now.”

Zamrud National Park comprises more than 30,000 hectares, including two major lakes. The park area is home to 38 bird species, 12 of which are protected, including the blue-crowned hanging parrot, the province’s mascot. Rare endangered mammals, including the Sumatran tiger, sun bear, flat-headed cat and siamang (the largest of the gibbon species) also inhabit the park.

The establishment of the park is excellent news for the preservation of the Sumatran ecosystem. Before being declared a natural reserve, oil and mining companies extensively exploited the area of Zamrud National Park. Even after the reserve was established, biodiversity and wildlife survival was threatened by nearby logging and paper companies.

Ecotourism as an Alternative

In the article I wrote in the wake of the Haze last year, I named ecotourism as a possible solution to the environmental destruction that Southeast Asia continues to face year after year.

Examples of ecotourism success stories can be found across the world – Namibia and Botswana are two examples where environmental protection and community cooperation have increased wildlife conservancy and brought economic opportunities to the local population. In Costa Rica, the ecotourism poster child of Central America, ecotourism now brings more revenue than cash crops, and unemployment has fallen to less than 10 percent.

Ecotourism can be a driving force bringing forth development, increased employment opportunities and environmental awareness, which benefits nature, wildlife and local communities. This is especially relevant in the case of the palm oil industry, which has brought undeniable economic benefits to poverty-stricken regions. Thanks to the high yield of palm oil, several village farmers have been able to earn a living from their small plantations. Ecotourism could provide a viable alternative for small-scale farmers, reducing poverty and preserving the environment at the same time.

It is undeniable that if deforestation continues at today’s rate, and if forest fires and the Haze continue to happen, the ecosystem of Sumatra and Borneo will soon be irrevocably lost. This is why the establishment of Zamrud National Park is certainly a step in the right direction – let’s just hope there will be more.

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