Palm oil threats must be removed if Bornean orangutans are to survive, report says

A new report published by the International Institute for Environmental Development (IIED) says the development of large-scale oil palm plantations is responsible for significant loss and degradation of orangutan habitat on the island of Borneo.

“If the current approach to plantations continues, the window of opportunity to protect key orangutan populations and their natural habitat in will close in the near future,” the report’s authors¹ state. “However, a number of ambitious private sector commitments and regulatory improvements offer glimmers of hope.”

If these improvements are strengthened, scaled up, and embedded within broader legal and institutional frameworks, they could shift the trajectory of the palm oil industry in Borneo towards more responsible forms of production, the authors add.

“The significant areas of orangutan habitat that lie within undeveloped oil palm estates need to be protected.”

The island of Borneo is politically divided among three countries: Malaysia and Brunei in the north, and Indonesia to the south.

The authors of the new report point out that, over recent decades, the palm oil industry has contributed significantly to the economic development of Indonesia and Malaysia, which together produce an estimated 85 to 90 per cent of global palm oil supply.

“However, the industry has also caused widespread deforestation of tropical ecosystems renowned for their extraordinary biodiversity, as well as numerous conflicts with indigenous peoples and local communities.”

Palm oil is one of the most controversial yet ubiquitous agricultural commodities in the world and is used in a host of everyday products ranging from cooking oil and chocolate to toothpaste and soap.

In 2016, Indonesia produced 36 million tonnes of palm oil, and Malaysia produced 21 million tonnes.

Oil palm plantation in the PT Bumi Sawit Sejahtera concession in Ketapang, West Kalimantan, in Indonesian Borneo. (December 3, 2015; © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace.)

In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed the classification of the Bornean orangutan from endangered to critically endangered, citing the primary causes of its population decline as habitat loss and fragmentation (primarily for logging and oil palm plantations), along with illegal hunting, and fires.

One of the main reasons for the population decline is that the Bornean orangutan’s preferred habitat – tropical lowland and peatland rainforests – is largely the same as that targeted for agricultural development, the IIED report states.

“The rapid expansion of the oil palm industry – particularly large-scale plantations, but also government-mandated smallholder schemes – is thus one of the main causes of the loss and degradation of orangutan habitat in Borneo.”

Orangutans are protected under Indonesian and Malaysian legislation, but law enforcement has proved grossly inadequate, the report’s authors state.

“In addition, state-protected areas cover just 25 per cent of remaining orangutan habitat in Borneo.

“Both species- and area-based legal protections are thus insufficient for the long-term survival of orangutans.”

Most of the protected areas are at high-altitude, do not correspond with orangutan habitat, and are generally unsuitable for oil palm development.

Photo courtesy of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation.

As of 2010, at least 18 percent of remaining orangutan habitat in Borneo was located within large-scale oil palm estates that have not yet been fully ‘developed’, the new report says.

Ways of securing the survival of orangutans in such areas must be identified as an urgent priority, the authors say. “If nothing is done, most will be gone in the next ten years.”

As more orangutan habitat is degraded, fragmented, and deforested, the primates come into closer contact with people, the IIED report states, and are therefore more susceptible to poaching, killing, and disease.

The results of one survey undertaken in orangutan range areas in more than 500 villages in Borneo in 2013 show that between 750 and 1,800 orangutans were reported to have been killed in the year prior to the interviews.

The IIED report says that, as a result of habitat loss and hunting, it is expected that, by 2025, the orangutan population in Borneo will decline by 86 per cent as compared to its size in 1973.

“Many populations are expected to be lost if current threats are not abated.”


Support independent journalism that digs deep.

All the content on this website currently remains available to be read for free, but you can donate or take out a paid subscription using the Paypal or GoCardless buttons on the top right-hand side of this and other pages.

Changing Times brings you a unique and panoramic perspective on issues rarely covered elsewhere. Just $5, 5 euro or £5 a month from each of my readers will ensure its sustainability.


Photo courtesy of HUTAN (Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Programme).

The new report points to the problem of “productive use” requirements in land laws and calls for their reform.

The requirements mandate the conversion of most if not all of oil palm estates within certain time periods. If companies fail to convert their land by a certain deadline, they risk losing their licences.

The new report also points to the lack of enforcement of existing environmental impact assessment (EIA) regimes. This, the authors say, enables the continued expansion of oil palm in orangutan habitat.

“Opportunities to further strengthen EIA regimes – such as by considering cumulative impacts – have not yet been taken.”

Provisions for penalties and environmental rehabilitation are insufficiently used in practice, the report’s authors add. “This system allows, and even incentivises, a ‘race to the bottom’.”

Deforestation in Indonesia (Photo by Roni Bintang.)

The IIED report says that the production-oriented approach to forests and land generally aims to maximise economic gain without considering most environmental costs.

Upstream policies and investments at international, regional, and domestic levels set the stage for large-scale oil palm production long before ground is broken, the report says.

“Investors, stock exchanges, and financial institutions in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore are lagging behind global efforts to address the investment risks of forest-based commodities such as palm oil.

“Such policies fail to acknowledge the ecological limits to economic growth and inherent contradictions with sustainable development and environmental policies.”

Palm oil should be reframed as a “forest-risk” commodity and investors and financial institutions should incorporate environmental, social, and governance issues across their investment portfolios and join financial sustainability schemes, the authors of the new report conclude.

“Furthermore, companies should account for forests and natural ecosystems as economic assets rather than liabilities.

“More and more evidence shows the business value of retaining natural habitat within oil palm plantations to sustain production, yields, and productivity within an estate.”

The biofuel industry should not be used as a basis for the further expansion of large-scale oil palm, especially not under the guise of “renewable energy”, the report states.

“Investors should halt all investments aimed at expanding or establishing new oil palm estates for the production of biofuel, and instead invest in downstream processing, including technology that enables the use of waste materials from existing estates.”

The report’s authors do point to some promising developments.

Over the past 12 years, they say, the Indonesian government has enacted several ambitious commitments, including a One Map policy, a moratorium on new concessions in primary forests and peatlands, a new type of concession specifically for ecosystem restoration, and the establishment of a new peatland restoration agency.

They also cite progressive rulings by the Indonesian courts about tax evasion and the liability of oil palm company directors and Singapore’s 2014 Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, which, the report authors say, “takes an usually proactive step towards extraterritorial liability for oil palm plantations operating in the region”.

Such initiatives have limitations, the authors say, but they show that strong political leadership can have a positive catalytic effect.

“These efforts need further support to avoid becoming one-off events and to influence the broader system that otherwise enables the ‘business as usual’ approach to large-scale oil palm.”

The IIED includes the following recommendations:

  • protect and conserve orangutan habitat within existing oil palm estates and in areas likely to be allocated to oil palm;
  • strengthen, scale up, and institutionalise ambitious sustainability and zero-deforestation commitments;
  • strengthen and adopt additional jurisdictional approaches to palm oil certification; and
  • strengthen and expand mechanisms for the enforcement of habitat protection and environmental mitigation in new and existing oil palm estates. 

Mainstream environmental considerations, the authors add, should be a priority in oil palm investment and related economic policies and laws, in land use planning and allocation, in licensing, and in impact assessments for new oil palm developments.

Indonesia, they say, should extend and strengthen its moratorium on new plantations in primary forests and peatlands and the governments of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo should adopt and implement similar moratoriums in their respective states. 

Oil palm plantation in Sabah.

2010 distribution of the three Bornean orangutan sub-species: Pongo pygmaeus morio, Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus, and Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii.

Land use and land cover in Borneo in 2010.

Location of fires between October 22, 2014, and December 1, 2015.

Figures courtesy of Ridge to Reef, Living Landscape Alliance, and Borneo Futures.


  1. The report’s authors are Holly Jonas, who coordinates Forever Sabah’s legal innovation programme and co-directs the environmental organisation Ridge to Reef; conservation scientist Nicola Karen Abram, who is a technical coordinator for spatial planning for Forever Sabah and founded and co-directs the NGO Living Landscape Alliance; and Marc Ancrenaz, who co-founded the French NGO HUTAN and the Borneo Futures initiative, and runs the Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Programme in Sabah.

Headline photo courtesy of the BOS Foundation.