In less than 25 years, the principal home of Sumatran orangutans has dwindled to one sixth of its former size. Meanwhile the orangutan population has fallen by 90%. The culprit is big palm oil. Despite legislation, public outcry and incalculable biodiversity loss, deforestation on Sumatra continues.

Because keeping tabs on destructive palm plantations is such a tricky and risky business, environmental campaigners have started using drones in Sumatra’s Tripa swamp forest. These drones are used to find out where forest is being cleared and burned as well as to track tagged orangutans. Forests with peat measuring over three meters deep are not meant to be cleared due to peat’s carbon trapping function. But this is wild west-style capitalism we’re talking about, and the palm oil industry has the Indonesian government in its pocket, so forget about any real enforcement of environmental laws, whether they concern orangutans, Sumatran tigers or climate change.

Pic: Rainforest Action Network

And if you think a few ethical palm or palm-free products are going to make a difference, you’re a far more optimistic person than I am. This is capitalism we’re talking about – it’s about making the most amount of money in the shortest amount of time and by any means. Ethics play little, if any, role.

From the Observer:

The battle to save the orangutans is not helped by the readiness of multinational corporations to use palm oil from unverified sources. Hundreds of products on UK supermarket shelves are made with palm oil or its derivatives sourced from plantations on land that was once home to Sumatran orangutans.

Even those companies that have bended to consumer and activist pressure to use palm oil from sustainable sources are having trouble doing so. The industry is so opaque and confusing, it is difficult to know where the palm is coming from or whether the sustainable product has been mixed with some coming from places like the Tripa forest.

Another problem is that palm oil is in everything. Supermarkets are stocked with food products and cosmetics loaded with the stuff. It also doesn’t help that it can be referred to by many different names in ingredient lists.

Bukit Lawang Orangutan Sancturary, Sumatra. Pic: Alain (Flickr CC)

The unfortunate orangutans also have to look out for poachers who will sell them as pets or for their meat. They are becoming even easier to catch because the nature of Sumatra’s unregulated deforestation creates isolated patches of forest, effectively trapping the slow and docile apes.

What was once a rich lowland forest full of fruit (perfect for orangutans) is now a minefield.

From the National:

[…] now the companies come with heavy equipment, 60 excavators at a time, and they use them to create the canals to drain the water from the swamp and then the trees die and then they cut the tree and burn the stumps and use bulldozers to remove the rest. Then they plant the oil palms.

–Anto, local orang-utan expert

Deforestation in Indonesia has a history of bloody criminal activity starting at the very top in the form of mafia-style bosses all the way to the bullies and poachers at the bottom. Unfortunately, capitalism often rewards this kind of behavior in the end.

For ways to avoid unsustainable palm oil see this fact sheet.

Also check out this video report from HLNtv.