Our Planet: the need for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil

Elizabeth Clarke — Global Palm Oil Lead, WWF

‘Our Planet’ showcases the impact oil palm has had on orangutans, but it also reveals that there is far more at stake if we fail to change our path. To save our jungles, we need palm oil to be sustainable and deforestation-free.

If you’re anything like me, and share a passion for the natural world and the warm, emphatic narration of Sir David Attenborough, then you might have binge-watched the breathtaking new Netflix documentary series ‘Our Planet’. It takes the viewer on a journey across some of the most incredible natural places on earth, whilst highlighting the man-made threats that these irreplaceable places face.

No series focusing on our planet’s natural wonders would be complete without featuring jungles. Jungles cover less than 7% of our world, yet they are the richest habitat on earth, containing millions of species and playing a vital role for the health of our planet and for us all. Jungles store more carbon than any other habitat on land, they cool our planet, and provide food and medicines. But our jungles have been deforested at an alarming rate — by nearly 15 million hectares a year — to feed our demand for a range of commodities, including timber, beef, soy, pulp, rubber, cocoa and even durian (yes, the pungent fruit that divides culinary opinion).

The ‘Jungles’ episode highlights the threat of unsustainable expansion of oil palm. The familiar footage of orangutans over the years has become the poster-child of palm oil in the public consciousness. And not without good reason. The expansion of land use under oil palm has been undeniably bad for orangutans; the three species of which are found exclusively on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, located in Indonesia and Malaysia which collectively produce 85% of the world’s palm oil. The loss of primary forests or “jungle” has had a devastating impact on orangutan habitat, particularly as orangutans are arboreal, meaning that they spend most of their time in the trees, moving between them to sleep and feed. As Sir David tells us, “survival depends on each orangutan understanding its patch perfectly”, and so they are particularly vulnerable to changes in the forest. A monoculture of oil palm is no substitute for such forest.

An orangutan “rescued” from an oil palm estate.

Of course, it’s not just orangutans that have been impacted. Oil palm plantations are known to contain just a fraction of the biodiversity of jungle and Borneo has the planet’s oldest jungles which contain a “treasure trove” of life. Indeed, the episode introduces us to a “unique cast of characters” that varies within and between jungles.The episode opens on the Congo, with lowland gorillas and forest elephants. In Borneo, the special relationship that mountain tree shrews and woolly bats each have with pitcher plants is showcased. Moving across to the island of New Guinea, we’re dazzled with the mesmerising courting displays of birds of paradise. And in South America, it’s the Amazon, with spider monkeys, jaguar and over a thousand species of frogs. Many of these places are considered new frontiers for oil palm, as it can be produced across the tropical rain belt that surrounds the equator and is the only home to all of these species. What in some cases has taken millennia to evolve, can be undone in a single human generation by rapid and extensive expansion of cultivation.

Humans will continually demand more palm oil for a range of uses, from cooking oil, to margarine and ice cream, to cosmetics and cleaning products, and biofuel. It’s an extraordinarily versatile and cheap vegetable oil and considered central to the development plans of many nations. Nations that are also balancing the needs of a growing local population against the demands of a global economy. Palm oil is also by far the most productive vegetable oil and requires far less land to produce the same volume of other vegetable oils; and — whilst there’s something to be said for reducing overall human consumption of vegetable oils — saying no just to palm oil isn’t a feasible option.

The stark boundary between oil palm plantation and forest

So what can we do to halt deforestation? I would encourage you to visit the Our Planet website that complements the series. There is a second film, also narrated by Sir David, to accompany the ‘Jungles’ episode. It elaborates on other drivers of deforestation and advocates the importance of smart land use in these mosaic landscapes we have collectively created. WWF remains a strong advocate for producing palm oil sustainably — protecting Rare, Threatened and Endangered species, respecting the rights of workers, local communities and indigenous peoples, and ensuring that it is deforestation-free i.e. planted on degraded land rather than replacing jungle with oil palm.

It is possible for manufacturers, retailers and food service providers to buy Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified sustainable palm oil and Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) verified palm oil. Many brands are doing this, but not all of them and almost exclusively only in Europe and North America, as highlighted in the WWF palm oil buyers scorecard. Banks, investors and insurers also urgently need to take steps to reinforce and support this, and collectively we should all be supporting oil palm growers to implement the standard set by RSPO and POIG.

Many conservation groups, including WWF, are supporting national and local governments in palm oil producing countries that have elected to develop national sustainable palm oil strategies and smart land use planning processes. Countries including Indonesia and Malaysia have declared moratorium on new concessions for oil palm, and are setting stronger requirements for forest protection and for oil palm production.

And then there are the areas already developed for oil palm and other uses, in some cases decades ago, creating fragmented landscapes. Whilst we know that oil palm does not provide many opportunities to support wildlife conservation and is no substitute for orangutan habitat, there is some evidence that species such as orangutans can coexist in these landscapes provided there are enough large forested areas with connectivity, and a control on threats such as poaching. And in these altered landscapes, if great apes have adapted to accommodate our needs, then surely so should we to accommodate theirs.

Companies, communities, conservation groups, financial institutions, government agencies must work together to embrace landscape approaches and protect jungles and their unique biodiversity. After all, in the words of Sir David Attenborough, “we lose them at our peril”.