Today is Blog Action Day 2011 and the theme is food. So what does food have to do with orangutans? Quite a lot. Our production of food, to feed a growing human population, has a huge impact on tropical forests, biodiversity and also on the great red ape. Our last post told about an infant orangutan that was rescued from an oil palm plantation. These subjects, palm oil and orangutans, seem to go hand in hand now days. The issue is highly sensitive, emotive and complicated. Palm oil, which is extracted from the oil palm kernel, is used as a fuel or is a common ingredient in soaps, candles and numerous cosmetic products. It is also found in many different processed foods. For example, in Europe, it is found in up to half of packaged food products.
The balance between the need to feed our planet's increasing human population (Indonesia is already well past the 230 million mark, China and India, both major importers of palm oil, have a combined human population of over 2.5 billion) and the need to safeguard the carbon-rich lowland forests of Indonesia and Malaysia (the two countries which produce the most palm oil) is a huge challenge. But it is one we must tackle if there is to be a future for orangutans, forests and people.
The problem can feel overwhelming. But in order to make progress it has to be looked at properly, broken down and dealt with piece by piece. For example, a small yet effective initiative that the Orangutan Foundation support is the promotion of small-scale agro-forestry by an Indonesian organisation, Yayorin. By encouraging local farmers to adopt a sustainable, organic way of farming, as oppose to traditional forest clearance by slash and burn or instead of farmers selling their land to an oil palm concession, forest loss has been reduced and orangutan habitat saved.
Consumers can also play their part by choosing which products they buy. For example, avoiding those with palm oil or only buying if the the palm oil contained within is certified as sustainable. A recent campaign we were involved with saw the European Parliament vote in favour of compulsory labelling of palm oil in food products in Europe. This now allows consumer choice but will also help drive demand for certified sustainable palm oil.
Small-scale agro-forestry and wise consumerism are small but important steps being taken to address the problem.
Find out more about our work at www.orangutan.org.uk