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Home » NGOs and palm oil producers team up to help orangutans, but progress is slow

NGOs and palm oil producers team up to help orangutans, but progress is slow

On the library shelves at the Nyaru Menteng Rehabilitation Center in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) has assembled a series of bound volumes, each displaying photos of orangutans rescued and dubbed by BOSF as the orphaned baby Kejora, the rehabilitated Mona and the injured Grey, plus another 1,100 more.

Each album contains the animal’s complete life: where it was found, favorite foods, periodic illnesses, and daily activities (carefully recorded in five-minute increments) during the first two months after BOSF’s reintroduction into the wild. Crafted with all the details a loving parent can observe.

Rescuing orangutans from plantations and moving them to protected areas has been the mainstay of conservation in response to rapid deforestation and the development of oil palm plantations in Borneo. 

The BOSF foundation has played a leading role in these efforts. But now she, with other orangutan conservation organizations, is trying to reduce the number of rescues and working with palm oil companies to keep orangutans in plantation habitats, keeping these apes in their original homes.

Field manager Jhanson Regalino, who leads regional activities for NGOs in the Central Kalimantan region, told that he no longer wants to continue with orangutan “adoptions”.

Instead, we will make the monkeys stay in the palm oil plantations, where 80 percent of them come from, according to the Nyaru Menteng rehabilitation center belonging to the BOSF foundation.

Regalino insists that commercial interests should share the burden of orangutan conservation by creating forest enclaves with “high conservation values” (HCV) on their properties,

rather than simply contracting with BOSF – and other conservation groups like the Foundation Orangutan International and International Animal Rescue (IAR) – to “relocate” the isolated animals to forests in other regions.

This is what companies should be doing. Principle 5 of the charter of the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a group to which many of the companies these NGOs work with are affiliated, addresses environmental responsibility. 

The clause says that all members must conduct biodiversity surveys before any deforestation or construction activity. If endangered species are found, the company will be responsible for “ensuring” legal protection for the animals, “controlling” illegal hunting in the area, and “developing responsible measures to resolve conflicts between humans and wild animals”. 

The company must also identify and manage habitats of high conservation value, and attempt to preserve all existing wildlife corridors.

But to date, many NGOs have responded to numerous calls from palm oil companies to remove isolated orangutans from their properties. 

Critics say this violates the spirit – if not the letter – of its commitments to the RSPO. Currently, BOSF transfers orangutans to protected areas in exchange for a fee of 35,000 rupiah (approximately US$2.60) per displaced animal that transits through the rehabilitation center per day.

On the island of Borneo, home to most of the world’s 60,000 remaining orangutans, the conversion of forest to palm oil plantations is one of the greatest threats to the survival of these animals.

A recent analysis showed that around 65,000 square kilometers, or 9 percent of Borneo, had already been converted to palm oil plantations by 2010.

Today, one-fifth of Borneo’s orangutan population is concentrated on the west coast of the island and is in palm oil concessions still in the process of being developed, according to the recent report published by the Arcus Foundation, entitled Estado dos Macacos.

If companies continue to hand over orangutans to NGOs to move them to protected forests, there is a risk of overcrowding resident populations, say Sanchez and others.

Reform through RSPO

The sector, for its part, is beginning to understand this. RSPO, a voluntary association of around 2,800 palm oil industry companies and conservation groups, was established in 2004 with the explicit purpose of making palm oil plantations “legal, economically viable, environmentally appropriate, and socially beneficial.

”The affiliation has become a way for companies in the sector to become “sustainable” as those seeking affiliation, and whose products display the association’s eco-label, need to meet a series of requirements.

However, some environmental NGOs have grown impatient with the obscure and slow way in which companies have been implementing conservation measures, particularly with the assessment of high conservation value lands and the resulting management processes. 

Now they are forming committees to streamline and “standardize” the processes in the hope that their recommendations will be adopted by the RSPO.

For example, two committees, both made up of palm oil producers and conservation NGOs were recently created to focus on environmental sustainability and orangutan conservation.

One, the Palm Oil and NGO Alliance, or PONGO Alliance, formed in mid-2015, is spearheaded by the UK-based NGO Orangutan Land Trust. (Pongo is the name for the scientific classification of the orangutan in Latin).

The group is to create a standard for assessments of companies located on land with high conservation value and translate this into sustainable policies. The team comprises 16 members and includes five plantation companies, two land assessors, and several conservation groups.

RSPO currently places much more emphasis on “quantity” than “quality”, explained Carl Traeholt, member of the PONGO Alliance and director of the Southeast Asia program at Copenhagen Zoo. 

Traeholt compares the situation to that of an aid organization that counts the number of English classes it funds rather than the number of class participants who manage to pass the proficiency exam.

As for managing orangutans on plantations located on high conservation value land, Traeholt believes that a truly results-oriented approach would involve companies constantly assessing whether their properties have “sufficient water and food, nesting grounds, and suitable conditions.” for mating”.

This would require the company to “know, in-depth, each orangutan present in their lands”. A simple task, according to Traeholt, is if the area with high conservation value has no more than 20 orangutans.

Thanks to his work helping to survey concessions for Malaysian palm oil company United Plantations and Singapore-based Wilmar, Traeholt “has a guess” that this is how many orangutans live on lots with high conservation value. But so far, he lamented, few palm oil companies have surveyed the total orangutan population present on their properties.

NGOs and companies come together, far from RSPO

Some conservationists are no less optimistic than RSPO committee members that companies will be able to effectively manage the orangutans on their properties but are highly doubtful of the rise of the RSPO coalition.

Hardi Baktiantoro is the founder of the Center for the Protection of Orangutans. He left work for BOS in 2007 after the NGO helped to remove 256 orangutans from oil palm plantations, including from the properties of RSPO members such as Musim Mas, Wilmar, and Bumitama.

“There are many criteria and principles that members need to [adhere to]. The question is: why do these companies continue to deforest the forests and the orangutans continue to become victims?

Baktiantoro sees RSPO as “a way for companies to achieve a green name, which is important for their image among consumers.”

“But once they get the name, what happens?” he asked. “Commitment is not just finishing ‘homework’ or changing your behavior as you’ve been asked to do. Commitment means not threatening orangutans with extinction.”

Field managers from the RSPO and the NGOs affiliated with the PONGO Alliance, BOS, and IAR, admit that the newly formed committees have been slow to create change.

So the two non-profit organizations are also trying another tactic: liaising directly with each company to draw up plans, monitor lands with high conservation value, and implement “best management practices” concerning orangutans.

So far, the results are still contradictory.

Sanchez, director of IAR, said best management practices include companies creating standardized operating procedures for dealing with orangutans found on their properties;

informing people who live in areas adjacent to these lands that they cannot hunt the orangutans and that they must comply with other environmental regulations if they are within the company’s boundaries;

and establish “conservation teams” to “assist in the monitoring, rescue, and transfer of orangutans present in the concessions”.

For example, as part of the new model, IAR is working with palm oil producer PT Kayung (PT KAL), a subsidiary of giant ANJ-Agri.

The company has a conservation team that regularly monitors orangutans in its high-conservation value forests. Following the end of the devastating fires that destroyed Kalimantan last year, IAR transferred 11 orangutans found on PT KAL’s plantations back to the company’s high conservation value forests.

These collaborative partnerships with companies are the only effective way to deal with orangutans whose habitat has been replaced by oil palm plantations, according to Sanchez. 

Companies that ask for orangutans to be moved from their properties are just “getting out of trouble,” she said. 

The landscape near the IAR is taken over by palm oil concessions, and Sanchez cannot imagine “where else to find available forests to accommodate all the rescued orangutans” without “overcrowding” the national parks and other protected areas.

BOSF’s Regalino believes that another reason to work individually with palm oil companies is that when their land is designated as having a high conservation value – as opposed to forests managed in part by government agencies – NGOs, and villages can expressly dedicate themselves to the conservation and rearing of orangutans on the site.

“In Mawas, there are many interests,” Regalino explained, referring to the 3,000 square kilometers legally protected area in central Kalimantan, which BOSF co-manages with the regional forestry secretariat.

The latest count by the Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that Mawas is home to 5,000 orangutans of the wurmbii subspecies, one of the largest groups of this category in the world.

The Mawas forest is bordered by palm oil plantations, illegal logging, swallow hunters, and a traditional river fishing fleet that visits the area. Thus, although the forest is legally protected, in reality, it is difficult to conserve both it and the orangutans that live there.

Regalino said that, ironically, it is easier to set conditions for conservation on company property. Since the company is the official owner of the land, there is only one stakeholder to negotiate with. Even so, the process is not simple at all.

BOSF is creating a wildlife corridor in the 40 square kilometers of high conservation value forest at a palm oil concessionaire owned by PT Mentaya Sawit Mas, a subsidiary of Wilmar in Central Kalimantan, one of the world’s largest palm oil producers.

The palm of the world. BOSF, Wilmar, and the government of Central Kalimantan signed a five-year memorandum of understanding for this project in 2011. At the time, Regalino thought that a protocol of best management practices would be developed within a few years.

However, progress has been slow. Ultimately, the historical interests within a concession, not just the legal tenants, also have to be considered. “We need everyone, particularly the villages located in or near the palm oil concessions, to approve the plan,” he said.

Not an easy task, he admitted. “One day they agree”. “Then the next day they doubt us.”

Last July, BOSF finally got the five villages located within PT Mentaya Sawit Mas’s concession to sign a new memorandum of understanding for cooperation.

Conservationists agree that collaboration between companies and communities when it comes to conservation work is complex and, at times, slow and frustrating.

Even so, the chief biologist of the IAR, Gail Campbell-Smith, assures that this is the only way to be followed to avoid more and more orangutans being taken to the overcrowded protected areas – or leave them to total abandonment.

“Businesses must be part of the answer now. The concessions are located in the middle of the remaining protected area”.

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