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Move Over, Polar Bears: Palm Oil Orangutans Want Their $5 of Fame

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What do polar bears, orangutans, the Walt Disney Company, Cheetos, recycled fundraising schemes and corporate shakedowns have in common? It's just another day on the social activism front.

Skillful fundraisers have long used charismatic megafauna -- cool, cute, cuddly creatures whose pictures make you go squishy inside -- to collect money from donors concerned about the environment who want to feel like they are doing something. Nothing wrong with that -- voluntarism is a great American tradition and we all have our pet causes. But when the money is used to break the law in order to harass image-conscious corporations into making payoffs or driving their suppliers out of business, it stops being fun and games.

The latest episode comes courtesy of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), which recently reached into its archives of old publicity stunts to recycle plans to shake down snack food manufacturers for the "crime" of using palm oil in their products. Back in 2008, RAN's tactics consisted of asking a couple thousand volunteers to sneak into grocery stores across the country and attach stickers to bags of Cheetos and other snacks reading, 'Warning! May Contain Rainforest Destruction.' Another, similar attack targeted Walt Disney Studios for printing children's books with paper from suppliers deemed environmentally incorrect by RAN.

The idea is to browbeat disfavored industrial vendors into endorsing RAN-favored policies by reaching up their supply chains to threaten the reputations of higher profile companies more vulnerable to negative publicity -- or, if they don't comply, bankrupt them.

Of course there is nothing wrong with urging consumers to use or not use any product for any reason. Witness attempts to get consumers to stop eating Chick-fil-A sandwiches because its CEO donated money to organizations that oppose same-sex marriage. Some consumers did stay away, but gay marriage opponents packed Chick-Fil-A to exercise their right to eat as many chicken sandwiches as they pleased. That's what freedom is all about.

But freedom of choice is apparently not enough for RAN, which prides itself on practicing what it calls "environmentalism with teeth." In this case, "teeth" means vandalism, trespass and blackmail. And RAN isn't alone, as it is joined on the radical fringe by organizations like the Ruckus Society, Animal Liberation Front, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and others, including some that cross the line into lawbreaking and even deadly arson.

RAN's 2008 snack food sticker campaign fizzled out with hardly a whimper. But a new and improved version is back, this time to "save" orangutans, those cute, irascible Clint Eastwood co-stars whose antics can't help but make you smile. In a recent mailing asking supporters for $5.00, RAN announced its "most ambitious palm oil campaign yet, aimed at convincing the top 20 snack food companies to cut orangutan extinction out of their supply chains." Right now, hundreds of activists are stickering popular brand name snack foods in grocery stores around the U.S. with the message: 'Warning: This snack food may cause orangutan extinction.'

There's just one small problem with this story, and that is demonizing an entire industry for the sins of some of the players. Malaysia is the largest exporter of palm oil in the world, while Indonesia is the largest producer. Palm oil is also produced in Nigeria and Colombia. Endangered orangutans live in only a few limited regions, mostly on the Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. According to a report published by the Adam Smith Institute, "Dispelling the myths: Palm oil and the environmental lobby," the only orangutans spotted on the Malaysian mainland in recent history are ancient fossils. Why, then, is orangutan preservation being used to falsely target Malaysian, Nigerian, and Colombian producers for extinction?

As the industry develops, plantation operators, concerned about their image, are taking steps to ensure that their farming practices are sustainable. Almost 80 percent of Malaysia's natural forests have been given over to permanent reserves, national parks, and wildlife sanctuaries. In a country that is still almost three-quarters covered with trees, wouldn't that cover their fair share?

For rich citizens of a country whose forebears chopped down every tree from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River to tell poor people living in an undeveloped country that they cannot develop their resources to pull themselves out of poverty is the worst form of imperialism.

Yes, by all means we should teach and encourage sound environmental practices. No one wants to see mass forest burnings blackening the sky. But history shows that wealthy societies are the ones that protect the environment best. So if we want Malaysians to adopt our more enlightened values we need to help them develop their economy, not tell tall tales about endangered orangutans as justification for driving their industries out of business.

A major motivating force for social activism may well be the glorious sense of self-righteousness practitioners enjoy, but please get your narrative straight. There is no reason why the world cannot have orangutans and eat its Cheetos, too.

Correction: Please note that paragraph 8 has been changed to reflect that fact that Malaysia is not the largest producer of palm oil (and hence does not contain the "vast majority of palm oil plantations"). Malaysia is the largest exporter of palm oil. Indonesia is the largest producer of palm oil, and has more total acreage under palm oil production than Malaysia.