orangutans and palm oil

Selamat pagi from Bukit Lawang in northern Sumatra,
      I once had a lighthearted argument/discussion with a pupil who was just embarking on her career as an Economics student. I averred that there was no such thing as consumer sovereignty (in the same way as one might argue that there’s no such thing as an indoor plant). She said there was. When she triumphantly produced a textbook glossary with the entry, I knew I was barking up the wrong tree, and graciously conceded the point.

    The point is that we consumers do have the capacity to influence what is actually produced and available on the market but, do we in fact exercise that power or is it obliterated by clever, subliminal marketing?

   Here in the mountains of northern Sumatra, much of the natural jungle is still extant. That means some of the orangutan’s habitat is preserved. We are here to trek through Gunung Leuser National Park to see if we are lucky enough to spot our nearest relatives.

adult male – six metres away

  Farther down the valley much of the rainforest is gone, replaced by stands of palm trees, the harvests of which meets the burgeoning palm oil market in China and India.

This palm oil is a dubious gift. Apparently the trees are very thirsty, requiring more water than rainforest plants. They transpire much less than the broad-leafed vegetation of the jungle, causing localised shrinkage in rainfall. The plantations are much more prone to soil erosion. There’s an obvious loss of habitat for wildlife (orangutans included). There’s a concomitant loss of biodiversity. The removal of the primary forest is done with huge fires, sending masses of carbon into the atmosphere at a time when the planet can’t afford it.  The palm oil product itself is high in fat and nowhere near as good for us as coconut oil, olive oil or canola oil. Worst of all, reliance on cash crops reduces the population to the mechanism of the market and we know how agriculture fares in that scenario.

So, what’s good about this stuff? It’s cheap because it yields the largest amount per hectare, and burns at high temperatures. (Linda is my expert advisor on this subject.)

Gunung Leuser National Park

  Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil and the market is obviously set to grow as China and India develop at headlong speed. The incentive to clear the land and plant the cash crop is strong. You can hardly blame the locals here for doing just that. Subsistence growers can see a better future and appear to be doing materially quite well in comparison, at least at the moment. 

   Yesterday we ventured into the forest to see if the orangutan still has a home. We were rewarded with several close encounters, including standing six metres from an adult male. (That’s him in the feature photo.) These are typically arboreal animals but the male was on the ground at the time. This was both a rare privilege and comforting confirmation that breeding is still going on. Linda was especially excited when the adult female began chasing us. The national park was declared in 1965 and is patrolled by vigilant rangers, so that’s also reassuring.

mother and baby

   The demand for pristine forest doesn’t stack up when it doesn’t yield quite the same monetary returns as sales of produce. In our part of the valley – at the base of the national park – ecotourism lodges are springing up to satisfy a completely different demand. By staying here we feel as though we are not just gaining a personal benefit but are doing our small bit to preserve what’s left of the orangutan’s habitat. It’s the small decisions that count. “By coming here you are helping,” says Shillo. This is consumer sovereignty at work.
Selamat jalan from Indonesia

Other photos from hereabouts

one of a troop awaiting the walkers emerging from the jungle, Bukit Lawang

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