Palm Oil

NGOs and palm oil companies collaborate to protect orangutans

Photo: Björn Vaughn/BOS Foundation.

NGOs involved in orangutan rescue and protection in Indonesia are increasingly collaborating with palm oil companies to clean up the supply chain, manage the local landscape, and protect wildlife.

The issue of palm oil sustainability raises the hackles of those who say there is no such thing, and demand a boycott of palm oil, but most of those working on the ground in producer countries say a boycott would be pointless and commitments to sustainability are the way forward.

The executive director of the UK-based Orangutan Land Trust, Michelle Desilets, said: “More and more we are seeing conservation organisations, and, in particular, orangutan NGOs, working with the growers and the wider supply chain to drive change on the ground.

“This doesn’t necessarily involve an exchange of money but rather a change in practices to not only protect orangutans in the landscape but to carry out concrete conservation actions that improve the situation for wildlife.”

The Salat Islands

The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) and the palm oil company PT. Sawit Sumbermas Sarana (SSMS) have been collaborating on a landmark project in Indonesia that started in 2015: the Salat Islands Cluster.

The cluster contains areas of forest isolated by canals and a winding river in the Pulang Pisau district of Central Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. Each of the forested islands has been allocated as either a pre-release or sanctuary area for the orangutan rehabilitation programme.

The project area, which is about ten hours’ drive away from the SSMS oil palm plantation in Pangkalan Bun now spans more than 2,000 hectares, comprising a mix of land purchased by SSMS and the BOSF, and is co-managed by the company and the BOSF with the involvement of the local community.

The islands can accommodate up to 200 orangutans. Nearly 100 orangutans have been moved from the BOSF’s Nyaru Menteng rehabilitation centre near Palangkaraya to the islands so far. Most of them are releasable and 34 have already been released to the Bukit Raya National Park. Thirty-six are still living on the islands (as of May 10), and more than forty others have lived there at some point. Of the 36 orangutans currently living on the islands, 26 are there for pre-release (the last step before their release into the wild) and ten are unreleasable.

Many of the orangutans under the care of the BOSF are unable to be returned to the wild because of physical disability or behavioural shortcomings. In the Salat Islands sanctuary they are easily monitored, protected from most threats, and are supported regularly with any extra food they may need, and visits from a veterinarian.

The BOSF and SSMS plan to dig more canals on the Salat Islands and develop new phenology and orangutan monitoring transects.

Henky Satrio Wibowo, who is head of the corporate sustainability division at SSMS, says the Salat Islands programme is part of the company’s commitment to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and SSMS is also trying to remove the stigma relating to palm oil, the belief that is it is always negative for orangutans.

“We want to show to the world that palm oil and orangutan NGOs can collaborate in order to preserve the orangutan,” Wibowo said. “We hope that other palm oil companies will follow our example.”

Wibowo (pictured below) explains that the project is not just about protecting orangutans; it is also about benefitting the local community. SSMS buys fruit produced by local villagers, which can then be used for feeding the orangutans on the Salat Islands. Each orangutan eats between five and seven kilos of fruit per day.

For Wibowo, sustainability is about collaboration – collaboration between the palm companies, NGOs involved in orangutan rescue and protection, local communities, local governments, and the national government.

The CEO of the BOSF, Jamartin Sihite, says the Salat Islands are not a solution to deforestation in Indonesia, but, for the many orangutans in cages at the Nyaru Menteng centre, they are a huge step that is allowing the primates to return to the forest as soon as possible.

“What we are doing on the Salat Islands is a cooperative partnership. The concept is that all the parties work together and take equal responsibility,” Sihite said.

Comment by the RSPO in a 2018 report about the Salat Islands:

“Some may say it’s an unlikely partnership; a non-profit organisation teaming up with a publicly listed palm oil company. However, it’s a wonderful demonstration of how seemingly adversarial stakeholders can come together to create an ethical and sustainable solution for rehabilitating orangutans and enabling their return to their natural habitats.”


The BOSF is also currently managing an Ecosystem Restoration Concession (ERC) that totals 86,000 hectares.

ERCs are former logging concessions that are offered by the government to those who can restore biodiversity and carbon capture to the area. The land is leased for 60 years and the lease is renewable.

Achieving sustainability

The BOSF and SSMS are both members of the RSPO. Other members who are involved in orangutan protection are the UK-based charities the Sumatran Orangutan Society and the Orangutan Land Trust, the US-based Orang Utan Republik Foundation (OURF), and HUTAN, which is based in Sabah, Malaysia, and runs the Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Programme and is also involved in elephant conservation.

The BOSF has now made a commitment that it will only enter into partnership with palm oil companies that are RSPO members.

In a lengthy statement about palm oil on its website, the foundation states: “Palm oil, its rapid expansion was undeniably the source of many of the orphaned orangutans we have cared for since 1991. But, no industry is better poised to be part of the solution. We adamantly believe that the future of the global palm oil industry must be sustainable.”

It adds: “The BOS Foundation calls on the non-profit sector, the private sector, and the Indonesian government for more collaboration, support, and innovative solutions for creating a sustainable oil palm sector that truly benefits people and nature long into the future.”

The BOSF, BOS-UK, and BOS-USA are also now urging people to sign a palm oil pledge.

Michelle Desilets says the foundation has the potential to reach millions of orangutan lovers through its global network.

“I would like them to develop the dialogue they have with their supporters about sustainable palm oil, take the exchange back and forth and bring more balance to the debate, more nuance to the story,” she added.

Chairman of the BOSF board of trustees, Bungaran Saragih, who is a former agriculture and forestry minister in the Indonesian government and is special adviser to the RSPO for Indonesia, says that if we wish to achieve sustainability we need to learn to avoid conflict.

“Conflict is very costly,” he said. “That’s why we have to learn to cooperate; to learn to follow the paradigm of inclusivity: ‘You are not my enemy. You are my friend.’”

Saragih says that certain concepts of sustainability are not suitable for a developing country like Indonesia. He talks of relative sustainability as opposed to absolute sustainability, which he says is an impossible demand for Indonesia to meet.

“If we are told that we must achieve absolute sustainability, then we will never become sustainable because we know we cannot do it right now,” Saragih (pictured below) said. “Give us time; give us flexibility. It’s a temporary adjustment.”

For Saragih, sustainability is “continuous improvement”, making sure that what we do today is already better than what we did yesterday, and that we commit to doing even better tomorrow.

“When you have that kind of paradigm there is less conflict,” he said. “We are not seeing business as the enemy. We are helping business, not to make money, but for sustainability. We are helping the government, not to stay in power, but for sustainability.”

There is fresh awareness within the Indonesian government, in businesses, in local communities, and in NGOs of the need to safeguard the environment and biodiversity, but orangutan habitat still needs protecting, Saragih says.

“There is always a hunger for land, always competition for land for human activities, particularly with the growth in population,” he said.

Saragih points out that 42% of land being used for oil palm in Indonesia is cultivated by smallholders. He predicts that the percentage will increase to 70% by 2045.

The total size of oil palm plantations in Indonesia is now more than 14 million hectares.

When there was a global financial crisis in 2008 Saragih argued that the BOSF should accept funding from palm oil companies. The foundation had 800 orangutans in its centres and needed to raise funds to feed them, he says. The BOSF’s partners around the world were themselves struggling to raise money and the Indonesian government was not able to help.

“We identified where individual orangutans were rescued and went to the palm oil companies in question and asked them to help; and they were ready to help,” Saragih explained.

Focusing on the landscape

Chairman and founder of the Medan-based Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in Indonesia, Panut Hadisiswoyo, says sustainable planning needs to be landscape based.

“Sustainability assessments need to include the impact on landscape around plantations, not just the area within the plantation boundaries,” Hadisiswoyo said.

“There needs to be an independent scheme, run by the RSPO, that assesses the progress of sustainability at the landscape level.”

Hadisiswoyo cites the problems occurring in East Aceh when elephants come on to oil palm plantations and farmland. “I think the industry needs to understand that what they have done so far has already changed the way elephants try to survive in the wild,” he said.

The plantations in which the elephants are now roaming used to be forest land, Hadisiswoyo points out. “The plantation may be legal,” he said, “but the destruction of the rainforest habitat of the elephants is not being prevented.”

In Indonesia forest land can still be proposed for an oil palm plantation if it is not in a protected area.

“We need to be looking at the landscape as a whole, not just the administration boundaries,” Hadisiswoyo said. “Sometimes the administration boundaries don’t take into account the aspect of wildlife habitat, which has nothing to do with those boundaries.”

Hadisiswoyo says that the OIC teams are rescuing similar numbers of orangutans as they were ten years ago. He adds, however, that more stakeholders within the palm oil industry are now reporting cases of human-orangutan conflict.

The difference now, Hadisiswoyo says, is that there is more awareness. “We can quickly respond to reports of incidents of conflict or the presence of orangutans in the human landscape,” he explained.

The OIC is not a member of the RSPO. Hadisiswoyo (pictured below) says he values the roundtable’s work, but doesn’t think it properly addresses problems at grassroots level.

“The RSPO doesn’t target non-members and these non-members can be vital to the sustainability process,” Hadisiswoyo said. “There is too much talk in the RSPO that does not really address the problems at the grassroot level.”

The OIC does not accept any funding from palm oil companies (there is no financial collaboration at all), but Hadisiswoyo now sees dialogue with the companies as an important element of the OIC’s work.

Hadisiswoyo’s position in the 1990s was that he would not work with the palm oil companies at all, but, about ten years ago, he started to engage in discussions with the big palm oil buyers such as Wilmar, Musim Mas, Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), and Sinar Mas, urging them not to purchase from suppliers who were failing to follow RSPO guidelines.

He had realised that simply attacking suppliers for malpractices, such as slash-and-burn operations, was not bringing about sustainable change; it wasn’t what would get the companies to stop their bad practices.

Many of the smallholders who were producing palm oil were doing whatever they wanted without any intervention, Hadisiswoyo says.

He decided that encouraging the big palm oil buyers to get involved in managing the supply chain, and putting pressure on smallholders to engage in sustainable practices, was the best approach.

“The smallholders weren’t listening to us, but they listen to the buyers,” Hadisiswoyo said.

The layers of subsidiaries in the supply chain can complicated matters, he adds. “We need to be very sophisticated in tracing the sourcing. We need to see whether a supplier is avoiding pressure by selling to a subsidiary of a bigger company.”

Hadisiswoyo urges consumers to pressure the palm oil industry to operate responsibly rather than boycotting the product indiscriminately.

“It’s the choice of each individual to take the action he or she wishes, but boycotting palm oil isn’t the way to end the destruction,” he said.

“Pressuring the industry to produce palm oil responsibly will regulate the way palm oil is produced. Boycotting will not do this. The industry will still sell to other consumers who do not care about sustainability.”

The importance of education

Gary Shapiro, who founded the Orang Utan Republik Foundation (OURF), which supports and/or networks with several organisations in Indonesia, including the OIC, the Sustainable Green Sumatra Foundation, the Borneo Nature Foundation, and the Palung Foundation, says it’s not enough to be aware about orangutans and their plight.

“We need to get people to care enough to take action,” he said.

The OURF focuses heavily on education and training and, as a fiscal sponsor for The Orangutan Project (TOP) in the US, it is also now involved in the larger landscape issues, boots-on-the-ground conservation, and rescues and rehabilitation.

The foundation provides scholarships for people to study biology, forestry, and veterinary science.

Gary Shapiro giving a talk about orangutans to schoolchildren in the Bohorok district of North Sumatra, Indonesia.

Shapiro says collaboration with other stakeholders is vital. “For 27 years, I worked for both federal and state government in California, and understand the importance of collaborating with other stakeholders to come up with solutions to vexing problems,” he said.

“I didn’t think that we should be on the sideline, just screaming boycott, but rather should be working on the inside. Having a voice, having a vote, is the thing that we are most concerned about, especially next year, when the principles and criteria are being revised.

“We want to make sure that the principles and criteria are more stringent, and, at the very least, are being improved upon little by little.”

The RSPO is still the gold standard for sustainability and certification of palm oil, Shapiro says. “There’s no perfect system, but the fact that this has grown over the years and they have a system to try to do checks and balances, albeit slow, I feel that our organisation should continue to stay inside and have a voice there,” he said.

“I know that there are some people who don’t want to support palm oil at all, but I think it’s important to have a dialogue.

“I don’t think we should be polarised in our viewpoints. We need to be able to talk across the aisle and figure out what’s going on from the other perspective.”

Shapiro is very conscious of the complexities of the sustainability issue and takes care to provide comprehensive and accurate information.

“Can we truly have sustainable palm oil? Sustainability is like the word freedom. They are words that that have broad meanings and are not clearly defined, and are works in progress,” he said.

Shapiro says he is not willing to forgive or forget the forest destruction that has been caused by palm oil expansion and, given the destruction that has occurred so far, he doesn’t see how real sustainability can be achieved where biodiverse rainforests have been replaced by large monoculture plantations.

He believes, however, that, if monoculture is avoided, biodiversity can flourish. “Caring members of the local community, who really understand the ecosystem much, much better than most of us do, can be stewards of that ecosystem, so it’s really important that we provide them with the tools to do that.”

Shapiro wants to see more smallholders getting certified “so that they can enjoy the benefit of selling their oil and being proud of it instead of being cut out because they can’t afford the classic certification process”.

He says calling for a boycott of palm oil makes no sense at all. “What would a boycott really accomplish except that a certain segment of the population would not want to purchase it?” he asks.

The palm oil would simply go somewhere else, Shapiro says. “It wouldn’t change what’s happening on the ground that much,” he added. “Changing to another oil isn’t going to be any better because the yields for palm oil are so large compared to other oils.”

Desilets, who sits on the RSPO complaints panel, the Biodiversity and High Conservation Value Working Group, and the Principles and Criteria Review Task Force (all in a voluntary capacity), says she would like to see some of the orangutan organisations that are members of the RSPO participating more in processes such as the working groups and public consultation.

While Desilets encourages NGOs to become RSPO members she adds that those NGOs that decide not to join are still valuable to the RSPO process of continuous improvement because the RSPO processes are open to non-members.

“For example,” Desilets said, “the principles and criteria are now undergoing public consultation. Anybody can participate in this. The complaints system is open to non-members.

“And, because the NGOs inside the RSPO communicate with NGOs outside – Greenpeace, RAN [the Rainforest Action Network], and others – we can represent their voices to some degree in our voting and our resolutions and the working groups and task forces that we work on.”

Michelle Desilets

Desilets urges people to make an informed choice. “Neither BOSF, OIC, or OURF are calling for a boycott of palm oil,” she said. “They see demanding sustainable palm oil as an effective way for consumers to make a difference.

“The real solutions to the issues associated with palm oil lie in dealing practically with the situation on the ground as these organisations do and that requires collaboration with all the stakeholders.

“It shouldn’t be about what not to do, but what to do. Better to address the problems we face, via collaborative engagement, than to walk away from them by calling for a boycott.”



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