The palm on our hands

Try to check for bloodstains.

Biologists have postulated that the red hair covering orangutans serve as camouflage, effectively hiding them from prying predator eyes up in the forest canopy. Perhaps they might want to update that finding by including its modern adaptation: it serves as a red alert. What for? Their impending swift doom.

Orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra are dying. Fast.

Palm oil companies are seen as the main culprits. It’s easy to know why. For instance, in Sumatra alone, around 10.8 million hectares of forest space have been cleared to make way for oil palm plantations. To scale, that’s roughly the size of South Korea. And it seems like there’s no stopping the onslaught. Borneo still has pending expansion leases to satisfy, and if met by 2020, a total of 9 million hectares of forest will be cleared for oil palm expansion. If you want to know how big that is, just imagine a forest the size of Portugal scalped clear of trees and wildlife. Obviously, this counts as a massacre and a gross neglect for everything that makes sense. But why does this devastation continue unabated?

Simply because palm oil companies have covered their red trail of blood with greens.

The palm oil industry employs 4.9 million people in Indonesia. A workforce that produces 27-million tons of palm oil annually. In 2008 alone, Indonesia managed to amass a profit of $14.5-billion from the palm oil industry. One reason why it’s so profitable is the fact that oil palm, or Elaeis guineensis, is cheap and relatively easy to produce, making it the most productive oil palm seed in the world. As such, it enjoys popular use in the manufacture of many of our daily commodities. From cereals to ice cream, shampoo to soap. To satisfy its almost universal ubiquity, a huge burden is placed on the production sector. Demands keep on increasing, as it grew from being 40% of the global internationally traded vegetable oils in 2000 to 65% by 2006. In short, palms bring profits.

Imagine waking up one morning only to be greeted by bulldozers and torches then having to relocate that same day because your neighborhood will be converted to a plantation. That’s the situation orangutans find themselves now. The people of the forest (literal meaning of orangutan) are being evicted from their forest homes. A cruel prelude to their extinction.

Forests are extremely essential to orangutans as their name suggests. Among the great apes, they are the most arboreal, meaning, they spend most of their time up in the forest canopy, swinging from tree to tree. They sleep in elaborate nests made by bending branches first to make a base then piling it up with leaves for cushion. When the morning comes, it’s time to patrol the forest for food, and this, they excel at. Orangutans have remarkable memories that enable them to construct wide mental maps. They know exactly where and when to find a particular food item, especially if it’s fruit — the main delicacy of their frugivorous lifestyle. This memory enables them to remember up to 1,693 food items in the orangutan menu. Deprive them of the forest and these orangourmetans will starve to death and have no beds to sleep on at night.

Time is running out for them. The Bornean and Sumatran orangutans are listed as “critically endangered” by the IUCN. That means they’re at the boundary that separates life and the abyss. And palm oil is helping them slide down faster to the pit of oblivion. Within ten years, if no radical action is taken, they’ll be extinct.

It needs to be said: this massacre is driven by the wanton desire for profits by palm oil companies. True, they’re giving people jobs. But at a huge environmental and social cost. They deprive people of their primary livelihood by destroying the forest, then give them no other alternative but to work for them. These companies toil their workers to such terrible conditions, with some even employing children for cheaper wages. No wonder a lot resort to poaching just so they can have something to eat. Some end up doing illegal activities. Some share the same plight with orangutans, as they are also evicted from their forest homes with nowhere else to go after being promised a better life by palm oil companies.

Orangutans and humans are heading towards the same direction, with orangutans taking the lead to show their human cousins what it’s like to have your entire species punished to extinction by profits. Soft measures against these companies remain just that, soft. To continue dealing with them in that manner will only allow them to spill more blood. And the whole world has been stained enough. Let’s take a good hard look at the palm on our hands.

It’s all red.

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