Sir David Attenborough Champions Sustainable Palm Oil

Michelle Desilets

Conservationist and Executive Director Orangutan Land Trust

The Earthshot Prize: Repairing Our Planet series focuses on solutions facing the planet

On Sunday, the premiere of The Earthshot Prize: Repairing Our Planet, a 5-part series, aired globally on BBC and Discovery channels. Looking at the gravest problems threatening the health of our planet, the series highlights the people and organisations working to deliver real and lasting solutions.


Glorious images of orangutans, sunbears and proboscis monkeys from the Kinabatangan rainforest in Borneo filled viewers’ screens and we met Hamisah “Mislin” Elahan. Mislin is an orangutan researcher AND a oil palm farmer. “I think people outside Borneo find that a strange combination,” she says.

“In recent years, the increase of oil palm plantations has been one of the leading causes of deforestation in SE Asia,” explains Attenborough. The programme illustrated how first timber and then oil palm came to replace vast rainforest ecosystems. Over the last 50 years, Borneo has lost 30% of its forest and half of its orangutans.


Mislin presents a different approach.  By cultivating oil palm only on existing farmland that lost its native trees decades ago, the palm oil she produces can be labelled “deforestation-free”. But she goes beyond this.

She is proud to explain, “My neighbours and I just have small farms. We’ve been working with palm oil growers to help restore some of the forest. Part of this is our effort to prepare corridors for wildlife in the Kinabatangan.” Forest corridors help to provide safe passages for between larger patches of forest as well as food and home for orangutans and other wildlife.


Attenborough continues, “To stop the complete removal of Borneo’s tropical rainforest, conservationists like Mislin are trying to change the palm oil trade. And that means changing the entire chain from where the oil  is produced to where it is consumed.”

Next, viewers met Cat Barton, a wildlife conservationist from Chester Zoo in the UK. “My journey into palm oil started in Borneo but I quickly realised it was a battle we could also fight right here in England. The biggest challenge is educating people that deforestation-free palm oil exists.”

Like Cat, Attenborough urges consumers to play their part. “Only a small portion of palm oil can be classified as deforestation-free, but that can change if more consumers demand it.”

Cat’s work has helped Chester to claim the title of the world’s first Sustainable Palm Oil City. Since then, 7 more communities have launched campaigns to become Sustainable Palm Oil Communities.

Despite the challenges of trying to change an entire supply chain, Cat remains driven. “There is so much more to do, but we can only do that if we work collectively with plantations on the ground all the way through to consumers that buy the products in the supermarket.”

Attenborough goes on to remind us, “Although habitat loss today is most obvious in the tropical rainforests, we need to remember that natural habitats were lost across much of the rest of the world centuries ago.”

“Today we have a manicured landscape…we tamed our wild a very long time ago. We don’t want the same to happen elsewhere,“ Cat says, as the segment closes.

Last week, close to 100 conservation and social organisations around the world published a Statement in Support of Sustainable Palm Oil (among others the International Elephant Foundation). The signatories declared their commitment to drive the palm oil industry in the right direction, and to support a move to sustainable palm oil and not a blanket boycott.

With leading conservation experts like Sir David Attenborough and Cat Barton, as well as concerned conservation organisations around the world, supporting solutions such as choosing sustainable palm oil, we believe more and more companies and consumers will come on board and help heal our planet.