07 December 2011

Palm oil, pulp companies commit to zero-tolerance policy for orangutan killing

Two Indonesian plantation companies have signed an agreement to train workers not to kill or injure orangutans and other protected species

Rhett A. Butler | mongabay.com | December 07, 2011
Adult male Bornean orangutan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

The agreement was brokered by the Indonesian government between Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), a non-profit with operations in Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, and two major plantation firms: PT Smart, one of Indonesia's largest palm oil producers, and PT Lontar Papyrus, which supplies wood-pulp to Asia Pulp & Paper (APP). Both companies are holdings of the Sinar Mas Group.

Under the terms of the deal, OFI will assist the companies "in delivering a best management practices training program on orangutans and endangered species for its employees, affiliates and pulpwood suppliers."

The agreement further commits PT Smart and PT Lontar to "introduce and implement a ZERO-TOLERANCE policy regarding protected species under the laws of Indonesia as part of their environmental policy. This means that PT Londar staff or employees who are discovered killing, hurting, owning, buying or selling any individual animal or animals from an endangered or protected species under the laws of Indonesia will be immediately suspended and investigated according to the laws and regulations of Indonesia."

The agreement was reached after six months of negotiations, according to Birute Mary Galdikas, the founder of Orangutan Foundation International and a globally-recognized expert on orangutans.

Palm oil orphan in Borneo.Young orphaned orangutan feeding while hanging from tree. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Dr. Galdikas told mongabay.com the deal has wide-ranging implications for protection of orangutans, which are frequently viewed as threats to plantations and killed. Last month an investigation revealed that a Malaysian plantation company operating East Kalimantan had paid a bounty of $110 to workers for each orangutan they killed.

"If any of their employees are caught killing, hurting, selling, etc. individual animals of any endangered species, the employee will be immediately suspended and the charge investigated and reported to the police," she said via email. "If guilty, the employee will be fired. This constitutes a radical change in the companies' policies."

"We insisted on providing a training program to all managers and employees in Smart's/Lontar's holdings concerning the implementation of the zero tolerance policy. The two companies also agreed to include, as part of the training program, managers and employees getting first hand experience with orangutans and other protected wildlife at credible field sites in the wild."

Erik Meijaard, an ecologist who has studied orangutans extensively in Kalimantan, called the agreement, at first blush, a positive development.

"Of course protected species should not be killed, but we know that this is happening all the time in plantations and other forest areas," he told mongabay.com via email. "A zero tolerance attitude, if enforced and preferably independently verified, is an excellent initiative, which would significantly increase the wildlife value of plantations."

"Whether or not it can be realistically enforced is another question, especially when clearing of natural forest is involved. Staff may not directly kill wildlife but by removing their resources or displacing them to other non-forest areas, it certainly becomes more likely that the animal will die - note that such indirect killing is not illegal under Indonesian law."

Greenwashing concerns

Baby orangutan learning the ropes at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine. Photo by Rhett Butler. 
Bio: Birute Galdikas  
In 1971 Birute Galdikas became the third of Louis "Leakey's Angels" [the other two were Jane Goodall, who studies chimpanzees, and Dian Fossey who gave her life to the pursuit of mountain gorillas] when she was recruited by eminent Kenyan paleontologist Louis Leakey.

Galdikas said her group initially expressed concerns about the agreement given both companies' environmental record.PT SMART was targetedby Greenpeace and other environmental groups for converting rainforests and peatlands to oil palm plantations in Indonesian Borneo, whileAPP has been criticizedfor clearing vast expanses of key habitat in Sumatra. Both PT SMART and APP have been accused of using support for conservation initiatives to "greenwash" their image, but PT SMART seems to have redeemed itself in the eyes of some NGOs when earlier this year its parent companyGolden-Agri Resources (GAR) signed a comprehensive forest policythat prohibits conversion of ecosystems that store more than 35 tons of carbon per hectare and commits the company to "free, prior informed consent" (FPIC) in dealing with local communities.

"When negotiating with PT Smart and PT Lontar, we actually voiced concern aboutthe credibility of APP's conservation initiativesand made the point that the conservation initiatives which they explained to us seemed very self-serving," said Galdikas. "We were not interested in anything similar but wanted to have a direct effect on their companies' policies in the field. We wanted to make a direct and immediate difference to the animals on the ground."

"This is not greenwashing. This is serious."

The two companies also agreed to help Rimba Raya Conservation, a forest carbon developer, obtain a conservation forest for the 330 wild born ex-captive orangutans that OFI needs to release from its Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine in the village of Pasir Panjang in Central Kalimantan.

"Certainly, the palm oil companies have a lot more influence in high places than any conservation group does," said Galdikas. "Before the training agreement was signed, PT Best and Lontar started lobbying, at the ministerial level, for this forest to be saved. They continue to do so. This genuine gesture of good faith, along with agreement to institute a zero-tolerance policy concerning all endangered species, convinced us that it was possible to work with them and that we could actually influence their policies at the highest level."

Forest clearing for an oil palm plantation on the border of Tanjung Puting National Park. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Galdikas added that OFI "did not initially ask for funds. We demanded access to the companies' holdings and policies."

"We want to influence the way that these companies work in the field," she continued. "We demanded that PT Smart and Lontar change their policies and start protecting wildlife and habitat in a real way."

Galdikas said she hopes the policies could eventually be adopted by other palm oil and wood-pulp suppliers under the Sinar Mas umbrella of companies, including overseas operations.

"One of the reasons I was excited about signing this agreement with PT Smart and Lontar is that their sister companies are opening up plantations in Africa," she said. "I hope that, under this agreement, we can insist that the new zero tolerance policy on endangered species be exported to their African holdings."

The risks to wildlife from plantations in Indonesia is indeed real.A study published last month inPLoS Onefound that conflict between orangutans and humans is worst in areas that have been converted for timber, wood-pulp, and palm oil production. It concluded that orangutans are currently being killed at a rate faster than they can reproduce, suggesting that orangutans could go extinct outside protected areas.

"These killing rates... are high enough to pose a serious threat to the continued existence of orangutans in Kalimantan," wrote the authors, led by Meijaard. "The data suggest no orangutans outside Kalimantan's protected areas are safe."
Galdikas agreed.

"Orangutan killing is the dirty big secret of the palm oil and pulp and paper concession world," she said. "Habitat is crucial but it's important to save the animals themselves."

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