Cutting off Our Noses to Spite Our Faces: How the Rainforests of Indonesia, and the Dying-Out Orangutans, Can Be Saved. Today

By Joyce Major
For The Bali Times

“Balanced precariously on the edge of destruction, the Indonesian rainforest and the orangutans await the reality of what level of action and commitment will be made by the Indonesian government and her people as well as the rest of the world.”

UBUD ~ Like a car driving full speed on a curvy road with no brakes, progress flies along this same road, burning through resources with no regard for future consequences. In the path of the inevitable crash, stand the last remaining Indonesian orangutans in the wild, 7,300 at last count on Sumatra and 50,000 on Borneo, still flying through trees as every day man destroys more and more of their habitat.

Orangutans are now critically endangered, due to the growth of oil palm plantations, which requires trading irreplaceable rainforest habitat for palm oil.

There’s nothing new here. Across the world as countries develop their economies, resources have been used for profit without much analysis of long-term environmental issues. Everywhere we see man’s apparent need to grow products unsustainably, with an eye on profit but with total disregard for what is being lost forever.

The pull of economic gain from rainforest logging and oil palm plantation expansion comes not just from within Indonesia. Indonesia is the victim of mixed messages. The world market demands more and more palm oil, closing its eyes to the methods of production. This increasing international demand for palm oil used in products as varied as cosmetics and chocolate has led Indonesia to develop over 6.6 million hectares of oil palm plantations, with plans to develop at least a further 3 million hectares by 2010, making it the world’s largest producer of palm oil.

But on the other side of the coin, the side that looks at world environmental issues, a report commissioned by the World Bank and the UK Department for International Development placed Indonesia amongst the top three greenhouse gas emitters in the world, alongside the US and China, caused mainly by deforestation, peatland degradation and forest fires. The 2008 Guinness Book of World Records gives this entry: “Of the 44 countries which collectively account for 90 percent of the world’s forest, the country which pursues the highest annual rate of deforestation is Indonesia, with 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of forest destroyed each year between 2000-2005.”

How does a small orangutan population swinging through trees in their last remaining habitat stand a chance of survival when balanced against the power of an international economy and the law of supply and demand? How can the 7,300 remaining Sumatran orangutans stand up and get noticed when world markets are buying palm oil in ever-increasing quantities, even using it in biofuel?

Enter global warming, Mother Nature’s slap in the face to all of humanity to stop the mindless consumption of resources and begin to focus on sustainable development. And with global warming on everyone’s mind, the rainforests of Indonesia, home to peat moss and all things green, become an evermore important international resource. Because as the Leuser Ecosystem and Tanjung Puting National Park of Indonesia breathe in, man breathes out. The lungs of the world

What exactly will Indonesia and the world loose forever if laws are not enforced to keep the Indonesian rainforests and national parks from being chewed up in small, digestible bites by legal and illegal logging slowly transforming a lush, biodiverse habitat into monoculture plantations? What will the economy of “now” destroy forever in our future? The Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, for example, is home to critically endangered orangutans, tigers, elephants and rhinoceros, countless numbers of birds, hundreds of species of plants and insects. As their habitat shrinks and food sources disappear, wildlife in the rainforest will also disappear, like a candle slowly extinguished from lack of oxygen. Orangutans could be driven to extinction, lost forever due to man’s inability to treat the earth with respect.

But are there any solutions that maintain the rainforest and provide economic gain for the Indonesian people? Could tourism, the second-fastest-growing industry in the world, save orangutans from extinction? Will Indonesia develop a sustainable ecotourism business, showcasing its rare and unique habitat, and trade tourism for the ever-growing palm oil business, yielding the same economic gains to local communities as logging and palm oil? Could the rainforest provide income in a sustainable way, through eco-tourism?

Borneo and Sumatra represent the last remaining habitat of wild orangutan in the entire world, quite a distinction. Following the lead of Kenya, Rwanda and Costa Rica, Indonesia can preserve its unique rainforest, turning it into a showcase for the rest of the world, creating a sustainable green economy.

How did this change occur in Kenya, Rwanda and Costa Rica and can it be replicated in Indonesia? Kenya, recognizing the tourist value of its wildlife, outlawed hunting safaris. Tourists now pay large sums to raise a camera rather than a gun. Rwanda overcame corruption and greed to build its eco-tourism business to take advantage of its critically endangered gorillas, providing income to villages rather than only large corporations. Costa Rica, a country full of lush rainforests, birds and natural beauty, wins awards for its emphasis on eco-tourism as a sustainable form of capitalism. The Talamanca Initiative in Costa Rica, developed over the last 20 years, is a living example of how conservation can improve the local economy and quality of life.

Another possible solution as the world confronts global warming may be the development of carbon offsets, allowing Indonesia to sell its carbon dioxide-eating rainforest to the Western world in trade as carbon offsets. According to research by The Nature Conservancy and other groups, a carbon price of US$16 per ton of CO2 would make forest conservation more lucrative than forest conversion. “And for forests growing in Indonesia’s extensive peat soils — which contain large amounts of carbon — a carbon price of only $6/ton would make conservation economically competitive with even the most profitable agro-industrial developments,” according to Dr. Erik Meijaard, a senior scientist with the Conservancy and science advisor for the Orangutan Conservation Science Program. Linking carbon buyers with Indonesian rainforests could provide economic development and protect the orangutans by saving their habitat.

In a positive move in December 2007, the government of Indonesia announced its formal stance on orangutan conservation at the UN climate change talks in Bali. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono launched The Strategy and Action Plan for National Conservation of Orangutans, the first specific, enforceable agenda to protect the nation’s disappearing orangutans. At the launch, the president said: “The fate of the orangutan is a subject that goes to the heart of sustainable forests … To save the orangutan, we have to save the forest.”

With proper implementation, the plan could stop the conversion of acres of rainforest to oil palm plantations, saving perhaps 9,800 orangutans. But the plan’s success teeters on three words: “with proper implementation,” which points to the distance between a well-researched plan and how effectively it will be put into action.

Because even as the ink dries on the president’s plan, Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban has just agreed to give permission to five new palm oil companies to open a plantation on the border of Tanjung Puting National Park. This is the same minister to whom the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has just given a Certificate of Global Leadership award.

The rainforest and the orangutans will not survive this conflict of interest. The international oil palm business will beat the conservation of rainforests just like a royal flush beats a straight every time. But Indonesia has the right to sell its resources. The world’s complicity is in buying palm oil without requiring sustainable agriculture. For example, the Netherlands, an environmentally conscious country, is the top palm oil purchaser in the EU. Denmark, a country that prides itself on its pristine environment, was a pioneer in palm oil plantation development in Indonesia, but is it now producing sustainable palm oil?

Balanced precariously on the edge of destruction, the Indonesian rainforest and the orangutans await the reality of what level of action and commitment will be made by the Indonesian government and her people as well as the rest of the world. Are we willing to sacrifice the lush rainforest, a rainforest that breathes daily for all of us, and an entire orangutan species that shares 97 percent of our genes because we demand palm oil for our toothpaste, soaps, ice cream and biscuits?

Joyce Major is currently volunteering for six months at the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) Ubud office in Bali. She is a freelance writer and author of Smiling at the World: A Woman’s Passionate Quest for Adventure and Love. Write her at to find out how you can help save orangutans and their rainforest.

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