THE BLOG

Three Years Left to Live?

01/29/2013 01:20 pm ET | Updated Mar 31, 2013

Seven years ago, The Independent famously warned that the critically endangered orangutan might have only 10 years left before the species becomes entirely extinct in the wild. If that estimate is correct, the time remaining is now down to three years.

Orangutans are found in the wild today in only two places on earth: Borneo and Sumatra. Estimates of the size of the remaining population range from 16,000 to 30,000, with roughly 5,000 dying every year.

When I say dying, I mean killed. By all of us.

The main culprit in the catastrophe facing orangutans is palm oil, a widely used cheap additive found in everything from food products to biofuels. Indeed, estimates say palm oil is now in more than 50 percent of all consumer goods.

How is palm oil killing orangutans? Every year, an astonishing 2 million hectares of rainforest are cut down to make room for palm oil plantations, destroying the orangutans' only habitat. Adding to the already dire situation, managers of these plantations have also been caught illegally hunting and killing the critically endangered animals, which the industry views as pests.

As awareness of the problems with palm oil production has increased, the industry has taken steps to ameliorate the crisis by introducing what it calls "sustainable" palm oil, allegedly produced in ways that prevent further land devastation. However, critics at Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace point out that the certification process is wrought with questionable emission standards and lacks any meaningful enforcement. Others additionally charge that the palm oil industry already routinely breaks existing environmental laws and standards. And as my friend Patty Shenker, a noted activist for orangutans, pointedly asks: "If the product is so sustainable, why is the crisis for these animals only deepening? In addition to the orangutan, Sumatran tigers, rhinos and pygmy elephants are also vanishing."

Patty Shenker

Patty Shenker at the Orangutan Foundation International Care Center in Borneo.


If the plight of the animals weren't enough, the palm oil industry has also long been linked to human rights abuses in its treatment of the indigenous peoples whose land is seized for plantation development. The ensuing pollution frequently poisons the water supplies of villages. Since 2004, at least 180 people have been reported killed in clashes between indigenous farmers and government forces in Indonesia.

But the palm oil boom may also hide yet another catastrophic threat to the future: a climate bomb.

The peatland forests of Sumatra hold one of the largest carbon dioxide deposits in the world, an amount believed to equal all greenhouse gas emissions on earth in one year. As these swamplands are drained and cleared, the carbon is being released into the atmosphere. As The Guardian noted, a single Sumatran province with palm oil plantations contributes more to climate change than the entire country of the Netherlands.

And the grim news is: Palm oil demand is only growing, projected to double by 2020.

It is not too late to reverse course. But change can only come through consumer action.

For resources on what you can do, visit the following websites:

The Rainforest Action Network page on palm oil: http://ran.org/palm-oil

Guide to avoiding products with palm oil: http://www.saynotopalmoil.com/palm-oil.php