Comics mobilising sustainable solutions: Orangutans, deforestation and sustainable palm oil

Rewriting Extinction-Stories to Save Our World, a campaign using comics to raise money and awareness for projects to tackle BOTH the biodiversity and the climate crisis, has launched two comics drawing attention the the plight of orangutans due to deforestation. Working with Orangutan Land Trust,  they are calling for consumers to demand sustainable palm oil in order to save orangutans.

This message goes to the heart of why conservationists see sustainable palm oil as critical for the survival of the orangutan as well as for the planet in general.

Orangutan Land Trust:

The single-most important thing we can all do to save orangutans is demand sustainable palm oil.”

The organisations and experts that lead the way in protecting orangutans share this belief. Orangutan Land Trust have been at the forefront of driving sustainability in the industry for over a decade. Their President and Co-Founder is Lone Droscher-Nielsen, famously featured in many documentaries and series over the years including Orangutan Island and Orangutan Jungle School. Lone, knighted in her native Denmark for her services to wildlife, created the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Project in Indonesian Borneo. It is now the world’s largest primate rescue project, and has set the standard for orangutan rescue, rehabilitation and reintroduction. Lone herself has saved hundreds of orangutans.

“Many of the orangutans we have saved have come as victims from the unsustainable expansion of oil palm across Central Kalimantan over the past few decades,” she explains. “We’ve rescued orangutans starving and ill because their forest habitat has been cut or burnt down, as well as those suffering from horrifying injuries as the result of conflicts with humans when they go in search of food in villages and farms. Most of the orphaned infants at the project represent the “lucky” few who survived, but whose mothers did not in such conflicts.”

“We designed the centre in 1998 to accommodate up to 100 orangutans. When in the early 2000s, we were bursting at the seams with many hundreds of animals, we realised we really needed to do something to stem the tide of incoming victims; we needed to stop the orangutans getting displaced or harmed in the first place. So we decided to look deeper at what could be done with the palm oil industry itself. From engaging with plantation managers to use Better Management Practice, to working with multiple stakeholders in platforms like RSPO, we were determined we would see the way palm oil was being produced changed to one that doesn’t harm orangutans and their rainforest habitat. These efforts actually protect orangutan lives. It’s because conventional palm oil is catastrophic to orangutans & forests, that choosing sustainable palm oil is critical for their survival. The single-most important thing we can all do to save orangutans is demand sustainable palm oil.”

Orangutan Veterinary Aid: Treating orangutan victims of unsustainable oil palm

Another organisation that has witnessed the impact of unsustainable production of palm oil on orangutans is Orangutan Veterinary Aid. This UK-based organisation supports the veterinary teams at orangutan rescue centres across Borneo and Sumatra, providing equipment, training and hands-on assistance. Its Director, Dr Nigel Hicks shares his viewpoint: “Working with the vet teams at the front line of orangutan rescue we regularly have to deal with orangutans severely traumatised both physically and mentally. The rescue centres are constantly working with local communities and neighbouring plantation owners in an attempt to educate and to protect orangutans and those plantations signed up to regulation and sustainable production have a commitment to protect orangutans found on their land.

“The multi-billion dollar palm oil industry is not going to disappear so it is essential that we engage in dialogue with the industry in an attempt to reduce deforestation and preserve the orangutans. Engaging with companies to engender respect for orangutan and to develop corridors to facilitate the movement of individuals is needed together with exploring options for commercial interests to continue to support their country’s economy whilst avoiding the destruction of virgin forest and adopting a more sustainable ethic. All of these will benefit wildlife, indigenous forest-dwelling communities and our climate whilst saving orangutans by preserving their forest habitat. This means we are automatically making the necessary changes to protect our world. Everyone though, must play a part. Making concerted efforts as individuals to reduce our overall palm oil consumption and seeking products sourced sustainably is an essential task which we must all address with great urgency if we are to bring about change.”


Embracing sustainable practices will go a long way to sustain orangutans who are living outside of protected forests.”

In Sabah on the Malaysian part of Borneo, conservationists at the NGO Hutan have been studying orangutans, elephants and other wildlife in the Kinabatangan floodplain for decades. As populations of these species became more and more fragmented due to oil palm cultivation and other activities, strategies to protect the increasingly vulnerable animals have been implemented. Dr Marc Ancrenaz, Scientific Director of Hutan explains:

“Our observations in Sabah show that orangutans are using the oil palm dominated landscapes where the animals live. As such, it is crucial to support the best exploitation practices and keep trees within the plantations. Orangutans are more adaptive than we thought: today they are found in agricultural landscapes and everything must be done to sustain the individuals who survive there.     Embracing sustainable practices will go a long way to sustain orangutans who are living outside of protected forests. As such we need to design new ways for people and orangutans to coexist in the Anthropocene.”

Borneo Futures: Science-based interventions for conservation

Dr Ancrenaz is also a Co-Director of Borneo Futures, along with Dr Erik Meijaard. Borneo Futures  engages with projects focused on innovative science that informs the practices and policies of environmental management in tropical forest areas. Dr Meijaard also leads the IUCN Oil Palm Sustainability Taskforce. In an interview with the BBC News Dr Meijaard said, “Orangutans are a lowland species on Borneo and Sumatra and that’s where palm oil is grown. The two often clash, palm oil displaces orangutans, they are pushed into gardens where they generate conflicts with locals and that’s where you get these killings. Orangutans are incredibly versatile, but what an orangutan can’t deal with is killing. Because they are such slow breeding species, the killing has a really big impact.”

But he warns against a blanket boycott of palm oil. “If palm oil didn’t exist you would still have the same global demand for vegetable oil. If you stop producing palm, other oils will have to be produced somewhere else. So instead of harming orangutans you’ll be harming bears or jaguars, it just pushes the problem somewhere else because the demand for those oils will still be there.”

Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program: Community-based conservation

The Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Program is a research centre in West Kalimantan which engages in community-based conservation. As signatories to the Statement in Support of Sustainable Palm Oil signed by close to 100 conservation organisations around the world, GPOCP hold out hope for the orangutan: “There is hope for the remaining orangutan populations in Borneo and Sumatra, but we will only be successful with contributions from every stakeholder: NGOs, local communities, scientific researchers, local, national and international governments, and conservation-minded individuals.”

Orangutan Conservancy:

Palm oil  does not need to destroy more forests in conversions and in concessions.”

The Orangutan Conservancy is dedicated to the protection of orangutans in their natural habitat through wild research, capacity building, education and public awareness programs, and by supporting numerous on-the-ground efforts to save South East Asia’s only great ape. They, too, support sustainable palm oil.

“Here at the Orangutan Conservancy we are well aware of the damage that is done because of greed and the desire for more and more palm oil – we also recognize that it is not entirely the country of production’s fault as the highest demands for oil palm products come from outside and from highly developed nations and the fight needs to begin there not in the developing nations where oil palm production begins.  As palm oil is a product that is very ingrained in many products, we understand that it can not be eliminated entirely, but it certainly does not need to destroy more forests in conversions and in concessions.”

Sumatran Orangutan Society:

We need to demand an end to deforestation to ensure safe habitat for orangutans and all the other species that also rely on the rainforest.”

The Sumatran Orangutan Society has long advocated for sustainable palm oil. When asked, “Should we boycott palm oil?” SOS replies, “This is a question that each individual consumer, and each company with palm oil in their supply chains, must answer for themselves. A business might eliminate palm oil from their products until they feel confident that their supply chain is deforestation-free.  A shopper browsing the supermarket aisles might wish to send a message that they are aware of, and outraged by, the negative impacts of the palm oil industry by choosing palm-oil-free options. The question we encourage individuals and companies to consider is:

Will this action help orangutans, forests, and communities? The answer is an unequivocal no. What we need to do is ensure that it is cultivated in the least damaging way possible. Oil palm does not need to be grown at the expense of forests. Instead, we need to demand an end to deforestation to ensure safe habitat for orangutans and all the other species that also rely on the rainforest. The issues around palm oil (like most crops) are complicated and can’t be reduced to ‘it’s good’ or ‘it’s bad’. We are happy to see so many experts sharing their knowledge about sustainable palm oil and helping consumers make informed, wildlife-friendly choices.”

Paul Goodenough, the mastermind behind Rewriting Extinction, says,

We hope the comics we share will result in people all around the world taking one simple action to make a change. By choosing sustainable palm oil, we can all make a difference for orangutans.”

Learn more about Rewriting Extinction here.


Kinda a mess 

Safely endangered

David Schneider

Amber Weedon

Paul Goodenough


Purchasing power 

Paul Goodenough

Hector Trunnec

As a conservationist at Chester Zoo, I’ve seen first-hand the destruction and damage to forests across South East Asia and beyond, and the impact on biodiversity.  For decades, our Field Programmes team have been working with local NGOs in various countries helping to prevent and reverse some of these, often human-induced, impacts on wildlife.  Accredited zoos and aquariums today have a vital role to play in solving conservation challenges through restoring populations and landscapes but also educating the public and influencing policy.  As trusted conservation organisations, we are uniquely positioned to be able to lead the way as sustainable businesses, whilst using our conservation and science expertise to influence others and provide a direct link to animals in our care and their counterparts in the wild.  The journey to deforestation-free sustainable palm oil is one example of how we can use this approach to find innovative ways to tackle a conservation problem.



Chester Zoo’s journey

For many years we have worked directly with NGO HUTAN  in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo as a key field partner.  Vitally, working with HUTAN provided us with the information and knowledge needed to really start to understand the palm oil situation on the ground, and work towards a solution.  The solution to us was simple in description, but the reality of how to achieve it was, and still is, the challenging part.

The palm oil industry was not going anywhere, habitat fragmentation and destruction had already occurred and moving to other vegetable oils would impact biodiversity in other countries and require more land for crops to be grown.  The solution was to work towards all palm oil being deforestation-free.  The certification scheme for sustainable palm oil, RSPO, at the time of the start of our campaign didn’t include deforestation-free criteria (as of 2018, it does).  However as the most widely recognised certification scheme, we knew that working with and not against these standards was the key.  Our goal was therefore simple: advocate for improvements in the current scheme whilst increasing demand for sustainable palm oil through campaigns and influencing.  One of the key things we’ve found is that moving messaging with the times is vital.  ‘Sustainability is a journey.’ We’re not at the end yet; things are constantly changing and we need to them to change, we need to ask more questions, get more answers, and adapt



Educating and influencing

Our first steps focussed on internal communication and procurement, ensuring staff and suppliers understood the palm oil issue and the solutions available.  We created our own procurement policies to ensure we were using Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) in our own supply chains.  We then established a public programme to communicate this complex conservation issue, working to influence business, the palm oil industry, national and international governments and certification schemes.

With over 2 million visitors on non-COVID years, our zoo ranger and volunteer teams delivered complex messages to our visitors.   Our conservation education teams at the zoo worked with local schools, producing whole school campaigns on sustainable palm oil which delved into the topic, providing much more information than catchy boycott headlines on social media, and really encouraged the children to think about the consequences of various actions.  Creating a generation of critical thinkers is key to solving future conservation problems.

As conservation organisations, it’s critical that we don’t work in silos.  Whilst also working with field partners, the industry, manufacturers and certification schemes, working collaboratively within our own industry (national and international zoo association bodies) to amplify a joint message on palm oil was key to giving consistent messaging.  In November 2017, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and a global WAZA palm oil group was set up to assist other members in setting up sustainable palm oil programmes, helping zoos to lead the way in facilitating a shift to a more sustainable global market.




Behaviour change

In 2017, we took this next step on our journey and launched a behaviour change programme ‘Sustainable Palm Oil Communities.’  The aim was to increase demand for sustainable palm oil within our local community of Chester.   This project created a network of organisations in Chester, all united to help tackle the crisis.   Empowerment is at the heart of our approach, and by creating a community of like-minded, we saw enthusiasm for the project grow.  Our strategy with this project, however, wasn’t about numbers of businesses alone but selecting organisations that could help us with social diffusion.  This included a range of different companies able to influence different stakeholders and consumers.  We wanted to spread our message more broadly across the city region and beyond, so that mix of education and public institutions, hospitality, retailers, manufacturers and cultural institutions was key to creating the tipping point and creating the noise that we needed to achieve our goals.

Involving our local MP also meant we were able to take the project launch to Westminster, really expanding our reach.  In 2019 we were able to announce Chester as the World’s first Sustainable Palm Oil City in 2019.  Cities and towns nationwide are now working with us to take on the concept in their own area, with seven communities in total now having launched their programmes, many of whom are working with local zoos or aquariums as key champions in the region.




So, what can zoos can do to help break the link between palm oil and deforestation?  

We can really use our influence in the community, as a business and conservation organisation, to educate about the biodiversity crisis and the solutions.

  • Engage with on-the-ground conservation projects impacted by unsustainable palm oil
  • Work together with national and regional zoo associations, sharing resources and ideas
  • Inform and educate through public and school programmes
  • Transform supply chains and work directly with suppliers
  • Use positions in the community to influence change
  • Influence own country policies

To succeed, collaboration is key.  Working together with scientists, conservationists, communicators, growers, manufacturers, retailers, industry and consumers.  Involving people with a broad mix of values, motivations and expertise makes better solutions. Only by having money-makers and change-makers talking together and collaborating can we find mutually beneficial opportunities to bring about change.

For the first time in history, a regulatory mechanism will be introduced for the promotion of sustainability through trade preferences. In a public referendum in March, voters in Switzerland ratified the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between EFTA states (Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland)  and Indonesia. As palm oil was at the heart of this referendum, we asked Stefan Kausch from the Swiss Palm Oil Network to share his view on these developments in his country.

Green light to the free trade deal with Indonesia

It’s rare that people get to decide about a free trade deal. Swiss voters did so in March 2021. A small majority of 51.6% of the voters agreed on a free trade deal with Indonesia. This close decision is surprising. Only few other countries benefit as much from global trade and an extensive network of 32 trade agreements.

The reasons for this result are manifold. But first a brief look back: At the end of 2018, Switzerland together with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein (EFTA states) signed a free trade deal with Indonesia. Under the terms agreed, eventually 98% of Swiss exports to the island nation would be exempt from customs duty. In return, among other commodities, Indonesia would be able to export 10,000 tonnes of certified palm oil annually (and up to 12,500 tonnes at the end of five years) at reduced tariffs. 

In reaction to this, a civil society and farmers’ alliance, initiated by the organic winegrower Willy Cretegny from Geneva, launched a referendum against the free trade agreement. The opponents argued that the ecological and social impact of palm oil production in Indonesia are disastrous and that certification systems such as RSPO can’t do anything about it. On 22 June 2020, the referendum committee submitted 61,719 signatures against the Federal Decree for the economic partnership between the EFTA States and Indonesia.

Corona’s influence

The vote took place on 7 March 2021. The voter participation was above average. This effect has been observed since Corona has determined everyday life. The population is politicised by the pandemic and Corona has an augmented influence on the voters’ decisions. Criticism is easier to mobilise and the confidence in the Federal Council is diminished by the crisis as longer as the dispute over the pandemic strategy is taking place. This trend played into the opponents’ cards. Even more because a high voter participation favours progressive-left cities.

Green is in

The green wave continues to have an effect. The population votes greener, more women and young people go to the polls. Votes on environmental and human rights issues benefit from this drift, while economic issues have a hard time. Without the fact that imported palm oil will have to meet environmental standards, the deal would most definitely have failed. Swiss voters all over the country want ecology and human rights to be given more weight in cooperation with other countries. On the other hand there is a growing scepticism towards international trade and globalization. Particularly, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, market scepticism is widespread and sustainability has a high priority.

Negative image of palm oil

What was foreseeable: the debate revolved more around palm oil and less about trade. In the public opinion palm oil has become synonymous with deforestation and the decimation of wildlife like the Orangutan. It seems that it is firmly cemented in people’s mind that anything to do with palm oil is bad. In addition the opponents had their deep doubts about the credibility and control mechanism of sustainable palm oil certificates. One of the main arguments used by the referendum committee for rejecting the “nefarious” free trade deal is that the sustainability criteria for palm oil imports are a mere fig leaf.

No free trade without sustainability

To summarize we can say that this narrow ‘Yes’ to the free trade agreement with Indonesia came about both thanks to and despite environmental aspects. Despite all the prophecies of doom, the result of the vote is path breaking. For the first time, sustainability preferences are anchored in a free trade agreement. Besides this, it is unique that certification systems such as RSPO or ISCC are playing an important role in a regulation implementing the agreement. Therefore the agreement between the EFTA states and Indonesia could serve as a model for other trade agreements, such as the one between the EU and Indonesia. For Switzerland the result of the vote means “no new free trade agreements without sustainability”. Swiss President and economics minister Guy Parmelin already hinted that similar clauses could be included in deals under discussion such as that with the Mercosur region (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay), where the clearing of forests for soy and beef production won’t go unnoticed.

A ban would not improve sustainability, neither from environmental nor from socioeconomic perspectives. But improved sustainability policies are definitely required.

Global demand for palm oil has been increasing tremendously over the last few decades, and so has its production. Palm oil is made from the fruits of the oil palm, a crop that only grows well in tropical environments. Nowadays, Indonesia and Malaysia are the biggest palm oil producers and exporters worldwide (Fig. 1). The European Union (EU) is one of the major importing regions. Seventy percent of the global palm oil is used for food, either directly as vegetable oil or as an ingredient in a large number of processed food items ranging from chocolate spread to frozen pizza. The other 30% is used in non-food industries, including biofuels and cosmetics.

Fig. 1: Global oil palm area harvested (1961-2017). Source: Qaim et al. (2020)


Bad reputation

However, in spite of its widespread use, palm oil has a bad reputation. Many primarily associate palm oil production with tropical deforestation, climate change, loss of habitat for orangutans and other endangered species, and the displacement of local communities to make space for the large oil palm plantations of multinational companies. Against this background, it is often claimed that palm oil should be banned, in order to avoid all these negative outcomes. Several large food-processing companies have switched to other vegetable oils and successfully use a “without palm oil” label as a marketing tool, targeting sustainability-conscious consumers. Even countries and regions, such as the EU, have considered palm oil import restrictions and bans on sustainability grounds.

But would banning palm oil really improve global sustainability? The answer is a clear “no”, neither from an environmental perspective nor from a socioeconomic one.


Environmental footprint

Let me explain, starting with the environmental perspective. It is true that the expansion of palm oil plantations has contributed to tropical deforestation. Globally, about half of the current oil palm area was developed at the expense of forests, which has led to significant biodiversity loss and carbon emissions. But banning palm oil would mean that the demand for vegetable oil would have to be met through a higher production of other oil crops, such as soybean, sunflower, or rapeseed. This would require much more land, as oil palm produces 3-4 times more vegetable oil per hectare than any of these other crops. Hence, replacing palm oil with other vegetable oils would lead to even higher losses of forest and other natural habitats.

Conversion of natural land to agricultural land is the main threat to biodiversity, especially in tropical regions, and also accounts for 50% of all the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. That’s why additional land-use change must be avoided to the extent possible. But even when ignoring yield differences and simply comparing environmental effects per hectare of land, oil palm as a plantation crop is featuring more favorably than annual oil crops in terms of carbon sequestration, fertilizer use efficiency, and field biodiversity. In other words, replacing palm oil with other vegetable oils would not decrease but rather increase the environmental and climate footprint of production.

One may argue that – instead of replacing palm oil – reducing overall demand for vegetable oil could also be an option. This is very true. Reducing the vegetable oil quantities needed through more conscious consumption, decreasing waste, and avoiding the use of inefficient biofuels is definitely important to foster sustainability. Nevertheless, the global quantities needed will continue to rise, mainly driven by population and income growth in Africa and Asia. Against this background, choosing those crops and production technologies that can help to meet the rising demand in the least-environmentally destructive way should have high priority from a broader sustainability perspective, which always needs to consider environmental, social, and economic objectives.

Poverty and socioeconomic development

Let me now elaborate more on the socioeconomic perspective. There are indeed well-documented cases where local communities in Papua or Borneo lost their traditional land rights or were displaced by expanding palm oil plantations. These are unacceptable incidents, but they are not representative of the broader effects of oil palm on the local population. In Indonesia and Malaysia, over 40% of the total palm oil land is managed not by large companies but by small family farms with average landholdings of less than five hectares. Our own research in Sumatra, one of the hotspots of Indonesia’s recent oil palm boom, shows that these smallholder farmers benefit significantly from cultivating this crop.

Oil palm is more profitable than alternative crops, such as rice, cassava, rubber, or vegetables. Hence cultivating oil palm contributes to income gains and thus improvements in nutrition, health, and child education. Our longer-term data from Sumatra show that oil palm cultivation has raised farm household living standards by 15-20%, even after controlling for confounding factors. Non-farm households have benefited too, as the oil palm boom has improved employment opportunities, wage rates, and rural infrastructure. The rapid growth in the palm oil industry has halved the poverty rates in Sumatra and many other parts of Indonesia and Malaysia (Fig. 2). Banning palm oil would thwart these positive socioeconomic developments, potentially threatening the livelihoods of millions of local farm and non-farm households. In Africa, even more than 70% of the palm oil is produced by smallholder farms.


Fig. 2: Oil palm cultivation and poverty among rural farm and non-farm households in Sumatra, Indonesia.  Source: Qaim et al. (2020)


Sustainability policies needed

However, my conclusion that banning palm oil would not improve sustainability does not mean that everything is good. It isn’t. There are several areas where improved policies must be implemented to increase sustainability in the palm oil sector:


  1. Traditional land property rights of local communities must be strengthened, and forest protection areas must be clearly defined and strictly enforced.
  2. More research is needed to further increase palm oil yields per hectare, as higher yields mean lower land requirements to satisfy the rising demand. High yields combined with effective nature conservation policies can help to preserve much of the remaining tropical rainforest. High yields should be achieved through improved genetics and better agronomic practices rather than large quantities of agrochemicals.
  3. Small farms need particular attention. Smallholder oil palm cultivation can contribute to positive social developments, but proper support is important to overcome technical and financial constraints. On average, palm oil yields are much lower on small farms than on large company plantations. These yield gaps could be reduced through better training and better access to credit and technologies.
  4. The landscape design must be optimized. Large-scale monoculture plantations are associated with low biodiversity and ecosystem functions. But mosaic landscapes, where smaller oil palm plots are intermingled with forest patches and other natural landscape elements, can help to preserve many of the important ecosystem functions, often without large reductions in palm oil output.
  5. Sustainability certification can play an important role in kickstarting desirable environmental and social trends. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is an international certification initiative that has recently gained significant market share. A few national initiatives also exist. One challenge for certification schemes is to clearly define strict sustainability criteria and enforce them at scale, especially in a smallholder context. Here, further improvements are still required.

Further reading:

For further details, readers are referred to a recent review article by Matin Qaim and co-authors on the environmental, economic, and social consequences of palm oil production.

Interesting Webinar

23 November 2020 we organised a free webinar with Dr Matin Qaim. Click on the image to listen to the recordings.

I am often asked by colleagues, friends and students whether buying palm oil free products will help save the rainforest. Honestly, the question makes me sad. Not just because I have to tell them ‘no,’ but also because the question is based on a simplified perspective on palm oil production. The caricature they are left with is based on public campaigning that paints palm oil as something fundamentally bad for the rainforest and it does not help them to make properly informed decisions. The truth is that even though a lot of bad practices can be associated with palm oil production, at present much of the world’s palm oil is produced by operators who are leading the way on social and environmental practices, and producing palm oil without deforestation. 

So then, what should I tell the people who ask me for a way to save the rainforests from the effects of badly produced palm oil? Well, there are three things they can do right away:

1. Buy products that contain Sustainable Palm Oil!

First and foremost, if you want a sustainable alternative to palm oil, there is already one available: sustainably-produced palm oil. 

Although there are a lot of people who don’t know this, palm oil can be and is often produced sustainably. In fact, sustainably produced palm oil is not only ‘not bad for the environment,’ it can actually contribute to a healthy ecosystem and even help save the rainforests. Let me explain.

Palm oil, out of all edible oilseed crops, is by far the highest yielding. It yields 6 to 10 times higher than other vegetable oil crops.  It provides 35% of the world’s vegetable oil using only 10% of vegetable oil crop land globally. 

When sustainably produced, palm oil can actively be good for the environment, and the life that inhabits it. For example a team from the HUTAN Orang-utan Research Unit has discovered that orangutans in many areas of the Kinabatangan floodplain in Malaysian Borneo use oil palm plantations to move between forest fragments. They also use these plantations to nest, and even as a source of food. Progressive growers and conservation experts work together to ensure connectivity between fragments and that the animals are not disturbed. See this article to learn more.

Also, for farmers across the world palm is a robust, reliable crop. For farmers living in poverty the production of palm oil can be a great support. Palm oil can be harvested every two weeks, providing a steady income that can be used by farmers to cover all types of essential costs, including school fees and medical expenses. This means that palm oil contributes not just to farmers and their families today, but is also an important part of securing rural communities.  

2. Don’t just switch to ‘palm oil free’ products! 

You may think that finding products with sustainable palm oil is difficult. Maybe you can just buy products without palm oil instead. These are easy to find. They come with a big label proclaiming that they are: Produced without Palm Oil. At first glance this may seem like a great alternative. However there is a crucial flaw in this approach. That flaw is that replacing palm oil does not necessarily mean a or more ethically produced product. 

The thing is, all products have an environmental impact. As consumers we need to start intelligently navigating these issues. By replacing palm oil with alternatives, we are missing the opportunity to take responsibility for bad palm oil practices, helping to address them and ensure a more sustainable supply. Instead, by buying a ‘palm oil replacement’ we could end up contributing to other negative environmental impacts. This is because all agricultural production has an impact on the environment, something as true for palm oil and most other crops. So rather than replacing palm oil, we should be looking at how we can separate the wheat from the chaff in the products we already use. To prevent illegal logging we don’t stop using wood in favour of plastic. Instead we make sure the wood is certified, and comes from a plantation. With palm oil it’s no different. There is a world of difference between unsustainable and sustainable palm oil.  

Right now 86 % of palm oil used in Europe for consumer products is RSPO certified, meaning that the vast majority of palm oil products produced and sold in European supermarkets are already geared towards sustainability. Let’s help these companies in their effort to do better! By buying products with sustainable palm oil we can further support companies to invest in, buy and use sustainable palm oil. However, if tomorrow the demand for sustainable products would fall, so too would the impetus for continuing this important trend, as would the desire to see further transformation of the sector. 

So , don’t buy alternatives, instead buy responsibly. For a good overview of how companies producing your brands are performing check out the WWF scorecard. 

3. Support sustainable palm oil initiatives

So outside of consumer choice, how can you make a difference to the rainforests through palm oil? For a more active approach, you can support the initiatives that help expand sustainable palm oil practices.

Sustainable palm oil requires farmers to be equipped with the know-how and tools to take the environment into account. About 40% of the global palm yield is produced by smallholder farmers. Across the palm oil supply chain, millions of smallholder farmers, due to a myriad of factors, fail to reach their full potential. Some of the barriers they have run into in the recent years include: a lack of access to the proper technology and resources; insufficient capacity to make use of the economies of scale; and the lack of financial or temporal space to take part in certification systems.  As such, smallholders are often unable to produce a living income for themselves and their families. This can be compounded by price drops of palm oil on the global market, deepening their dependence on cheaper, less sustainable methods of production. Needless to say, these issues don’t make reaching the sustainability standards of programmes such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil any easier. However, with the right programmes to support them, these smallholders can become a part of the solution.

This year, Solidaridad and IDH started implementing a new programme geared specifically at smallholder farmers, the National Initiatives for Sustainable and Climate Smart Oil Palm Smallholders, or NI-SCOPS. The programme was developed together with four important palm oil producing countries -Indonesia, Malaysia, Ghana and Nigeria- in partnership with the Dutch government. Within the NI-SCOPS programme these countries have committed to addressing their palm oil supply chains and tackling the negative impacts. The NI-SCOPS programme supports the farmers directly by helping them increase productivity through adoption of best management practices. It helps them by showcasing and encouraging important innovations in the field. Crucially, it also empowers them to build resilience to the impact of climate change, while still moving towards lower greenhouse gas emissions through more efficient land use. 

You can learn more about this programme on the Solidaridad website or at the website of IDH.

Conclusion: Saving the rainforests

Will buying sustainable palm oil be enough to save the rainforests? Of course not. The issues affecting the conservation of this vital ecosystem are widespread and involve a lot more products than palm oil. Yet, sustainable palm oil can make a valuable contribution. 

Instead of big statements on replacing palm oil, it is better to start asking the right questions: What is wrong with palm oil? And how can we contribute to fixing it? With the right questions and the right answers we can help save the rainforests from bad palm oil practices. 

Marieke Leegwater, Programme Manager Sustainable Palm Oil Choice/Solidaridad





With the world’s attention focused on the global pandemic of the coronavirus, it may seem an unusual time for me to write an article about palm oil. “What’s the connection?” you may ask. The most widely proposed theory regarding the source of the coronavirus is that it most likely came from wildlife traded in so-called “wet markets” in China and spilled over to humans. It would not be the first time that zoonotic transmission of pathogens (when diseases emerge in non-human animals and are passed onto humans) led to massive outbreaks around the world. In fact, it is believed that more than half of all human pathogens are believed to be zoonotic.

In this article I’d like to share my perspective on the role of the palm oil industry in the emergence of pandemics, how conventional production is still a threat, and how sustainable palm oil truly is the only way forward.

Coronavirus and Deforestation
Scientists have been researching what it is that brings humans in contact with non-human animals resulting in diseases like Covid-19. It is more than simply a case of hunting and selling of wildlife. Overwhelmingly, the evidence points to disturbance of ecosystems. Researchers from IPBES recently reported that, “Rampant deforestation, uncontrolled expansion of agriculture, intensive farming, mining and infrastructure development, as well as the exploitation of wild species have created a ‘perfect storm’ for the spill-over of diseases from wildlife to people.” As human densities increase, more encroachment on natural habitat by people as well as domesticated animals results in more frequent contact with wildlife that may be carrying pathogens. Furthermore, the assault on biodiverse ecosystems can influence how many viruses exist in the wild and how they behave. When species at the top of the food chain disappear, the result is a proliferation of those species lower down the food chain (such as bats and rats) which tend to carry more pathogens. The disruption of habitat also means that these species, with their diseases, may be forced to go elsewhere included areas populated by people.

Looking at the history
The clearing of forest for oil palm in the past has resulted in deadly transmission of disease. The Environmental Investigation Agency mentions three notable examples:

  • When Indonesia burned much of its forest for palm oil plantations in the 1990s, bats harbouring the Nipah virus flew to Malaysian farms to feed on fruit trees. The disease jumped from bats to people via pigs – and had a human mortality rate of up to 74 per cent.
  • The clearing of forests for palm oil plantations in West Africa also led to spill-over of the Lassa virus, which triggers a haemorrhagic fever like Ebola in humans and can kill 30 per cent of the infected.
  • A recent study directly linked an increase in forest clearance for palm oil production in Malaysian Borneo to an increase in malaria.

Working towards a solution
It’s no secret that the conventional production of palm oil is responsible for massive deforestation in areas of immense biodiversity. In the past two decades, millions of hectares of forest have been cleared for this crop. The impact on wildlife, ecosystem services, the climate and on people cannot be ignored. Acknowledgment of these issues led NGOs and progressive companies in the palm oil supply chain to form the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2004, with a view to defining how to cultivate palm oil sustainably. Today, the comprehensive, but voluntary, RSPO standard delivers on civil society and market demands for No Deforestation, No Peat Conversion and No Exploitation (NDPE).

Yet only 20% of global production of palm oil is currently certified sustainable by the RSPO. Many large companies have pledged to halt deforestation in their supply chains, including palm oil, soy, timber and pulp, through initiatives like the Consumer Goods Forum but have failed to deliver on these pledges. There is simply no excuse for manufacturers and retailers to source anything less than 100% certified sustainable palm oil through one or more of the four supply chain options offered by the RSPO. Unless companies sourcing palm oil make the distinction and choose exclusively sustainable palm oil, there will be little incentive for oil palm growers to become (or remain) certified as sustainable. And until they do, they can be seen as complicit in jeopardising millions of lives of people around the world through their failure to remove deforestation and biodiversity loss from their supply chains.

Covid-19 and other recent pandemics are the result of careless human activity, often in the pursuit of economic growth at any cost. This should be a wake-up call that we simply cannot continue “business-as-usual,” and we must take the responsibility to make the right choices moving forward. We must demand sustainable agricultural production and development, including oil palm, that protects both people and forests.

Michelle Desilets, Conservationist and Executive Director Orangutan Land Trust

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