Palm oil is found in many everydayproducts, but deforestation in Borneo to produce the oil is endangering orang-utans and the environment.
Sunday, April 25, 2010 - 20:30

Palm oil is found in many of the products we use every day, like food, cosmetics and toiletries, but in Indonesian Borneo, there are concerns its production is endangering the orang-utan and significantly contributing to global warming.

The evidence has been uncovered by reporter Raphael Rowe from the BBC's Panorama program. He found rainforest trees being cut down illegally, destroying the animals' habitat, and palm oil planting on protected land, although the company concerned, Duta Palma, says it's done nothing illegal.

Click here to read the full response from Duta Palma regarding its palm oil manufacturing.

Even the Indonesian government admits that 50,000 orang-utans have died as a result of deforestation in recent years, but with the palm oil industry worth AU$8.3 billion a year to the country, it's proving a controversial issue.

Consumers face a difficult choice too, because many products don't show that they contain palm oil, and some companies say they don't even know if their palm oil comes from legitimate sources.

Unfortunately the video of this report is no longer available for copyright reasons, but you can still read the transcript here.

You can also read blogs from reporter Raphael Rowe about the making of the story and the reaction to it following its broadcast in the UK.

Ginny Stein's 2007 report for Dateline, Palm Oil - Green Gold?, about Indonesian deforestation to make biofuel from palm oil, is also still available online.

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Pictures: BBC Panorama


Folliowing the broadcast of this story on the BBC's Panorama, palm oil manufacturer Duta Palma issued the following statement...

We are a group of palm oil plantation companies that has been established and operated since 1987 under Indonesian laws. We have at all times tried to obey/comply with all applicable laws and regulations.

Duta Palma and its subsidiaries have already obtained all required authorisations for a plantation company.

To date, we have not received any complaints or reminders from the authorities relating to the above authorisation, as we are to believe that we have complied with all such applicable regulations.

As a palm oil plantation company, may we confirm that we have never done such illegal logging as meant by BBC. If there is the activity of cutting trees, which have economic value, it can be confirmed that such was done by another party or even possibly by local people beyond our control. Duta Palma and its subsidiaries have never done an illegal act or business.

For your information, previously the land was owned by several companies before we acquired it, the purpose of the land is as a plantation but they didn't do it properly. By the time we opened the oil palm plantation there was no forest any more, therefore, no more High Conservation Value Forest in that area.

We realise that the structure and condition of land in Kalimantan, some of them are peat lands, but we would never opened palm oil plantation on peat land with 3 meters depth, since it is not feasible to be planted and economically damaging to us. The plantation land that we have opened is on the peat land with average only 0.5 - 1 meters depth.



Somebody once asked, "Is it really progress - because a cannibal eats with a knife and fork?" Good line, but seriously, why is it that so-called economic and industrial progress so often seem to threaten vulnerable creatures in our natural world? There's probably no greater example of this than in Borneo, to our north, where Indonesia is making billions from its rapidly expanding palm oil industry, but the deforestation involved comes at a not-so-obvious cost. This report is from Raphael Rowe from the BBC's 'Panorama' program.

REPORTER: Raphael Rowe

In the last 10 years, vast areas of prime rainforest have been cut and burnt to make way for this - huge palm oil plantations as far as the eye can see. In this area alone, land nearly twice the size of Wales is currently earmarked for the future spread of the palm oil monoculture. The pace of development is devouring the only remaining habitat of one of our closest relatives - the orang-utan - a species now fighting for its very survival. To find out more, I journeyed deep into the heart of Borneo's rainforest and along the River Sambas. I got word of an orang-utan that had been captured by a villager from the river community, and he didn't mind taking us to see it.

REPORTER: Ah, there it is. It's got a chain around its neck, like a dog collar.

The villager had taken her as a baby 10 years ago and had named her Melay.

SONI, KALIMANTAN VILLAGER (Translation): TRANSLATOR: Back then I was a hunter - I hunted for pigs and deer. One day we saw an adult orang-utan bringing its baby. We shot its mother in order to take the baby. We tie it with a chain to stop it from causing trouble and we can play with it anytime.

Melay could live like this for another 30 years.

REPORTER: Have you ever tried to return her back into the wild, to the forest?

SONI (Translation): TRANSLATOR: The forest no longer exists. It's all become palm oil plantations.

The Indonesian Government admits that in recent years 50,000 orang-utans have died as a result of deforestation. Palm oil companies can make huge profits from the rainforest - first by logging out the timber, then from the lucrative palm fruit. This used to be the home to thousands of orang-utans but just look at it now - look around me. All the trees have been chopped down, the land's been burnt, the trees have been burnt - nothing can live here any more. The orang-utan is a species with no natural predators, yet its population in Borneo has declined by over 50% in recent decades. Much of the land clearance is carried out by migrant labourers. They regard the orang-utan as a pest - shot at, burnt, chased from their home, sometimes sold on to the pet trade, sometimes left for dead.

A muddy loggers' road took me to an area of protected forest, part of a palm oil concession where cutting down trees is forbidden. This is also part of a protected forest but that 'protected' status has meant nothing. Just look over there and you can see they're clearing the forest, actively clearing the forest, on protected land. That is clear evidence of illegal logging. To prove this concession was being developed on protected land, I took the GPS coordinates. My exact location is 0337784 to the north and 0171324 to the east. That's my exact location where this activity is taking place.

It's estimated that up to 88% of all timber logged in Indonesia is taken illegally. I took the coordinates I'd recorded to a former advisor to the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry, now turned environmental lobbyist, Willie Smits. So here they are. Willie punched our coordinates into the European Space Agency global mapping system.

WILLY SMITS, ENVIRONMENTALIST: We have these images from the space agencies and they are radar images so they penetrate the clouds - you cannot hide anything. These are coordinates where you have been into the field and this area with the white diagonal lines here is the Duta Palma groups.

Palm oil developer Duta Palma owns this concession. They supply a number of international traders, who sell the oil to Asian and European markets.

WILLY SMITS: The area is classified as high-conservation-value forest. It's virgin forest. Under the Indonesian law, you cannot convert this high-quality forest to an oil palm plantation but, as you see, it's still taking place. This is criminal. This should not take place. It means there is no hope left for the most endangered subspecies of the orang-utan in West Kalimantan.

The Indonesian Ministry of Forestry recognises the problem and is working with local charities who are trying to re-home the surviving orang-utans.

I'm now with the International Animal Rescue team and I'm on my way up to a Ministry of Forestry rescue centre where they're holding an orang-utan found in a plantation. I joined their chief vet, Karmele.

KARMELE LLANO SANCHEZ, INTERNATIONAL ANIMAL RESCUE: His name is Chingo. I think he's about six years old. He's a bit naughty.

REPORTER: Where do you think his parents are and the rest of his family, if he has any?

KARMELE LLANO SANCHEZ: You can only take a baby orang-utan from the wild if you kill the mother first because the mother will always try to defend the baby.

Another rescued orangutan, called Jo Jo, was to be transported along with Chingo to an animal rescue centre in Ketapang, but he was behaving strangely.

REPORTER: Why do they do that? Why does he do that movement?

KARMELE LLANO SANCHEZ: This is the stereotypical behaviour. It's actually abnormal behaviour. It's because they are in captivity so they get this psychological disorder.

Karmele was worried he was too agitated for the trip ahead.

KARMELE LLANO SANCHEZ: I want to give anaesthesia.

WOMAN: Good boy. Good boy.

KARMELE LLANO SANCHEZ: OK. OK. Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry. Orang-utans suffer a lot of pain. They have passed through such a traumatic experience I think it's difficult for them to forget. They are exactly the same as a human, but they don't have this development in their brains to understand our politics. But they are the same as us - they feel the same as we would feel.

It was time to leave for the airport - a journey into an uncertain future - but Chingo had other ideas.

KARMELE LLANO SANCHEZ: We are really running out of time. It is going to be too late if we don't do something very quickly - orang-utans will be extinct.

Palm oil earns Indonesia almost £5 billion a year, supplying not just the food industry but supporting the biofuel boom as well. I visited a legitimate plantation to see the palm fruit being harvested. And there it is, a fresh fruit bunch straight out of a palm tree. This is what it's all about - the palm fruit. This odourless, solid piece of fruit is causing so much devastation across the whole of Indonesia's rainforest. The reason it's in such demand is because it's the cheapest vegetable oil on the market - and that's why it's used in so many of our products.

I'm now on my way to a government-owned palm oil mill. This road has truck after truck after truck full of the palm oil fruit - big trucks, small trucks, with the palm fruit pouring out of the side. There's just tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of the stuff waiting to be processed. Environmental activists and foreign journalists have been deported for trying to investigate the palm oil trade, so we had to be careful. Watch out, there's a security guard right here. I can see what look like oil tankers.

It's clear they didn't want any prying eyes. They're just starting to write on a piece of paper. Maybe they're taking our numberplates. I think we'd better get out of here. Here he comes. He's coming over. We'd better leave. I think we should go. The palm oil industry is not just a threat to the orang-utan, it's a threat to the whole world too. I wanted to hear what the Indonesian Government were doing about it.

DR H. SUSWONO, INDONESIAN AGRICULTURE MINISTER (Translation): TRANSLAOR: We want to replant the forest. The President himself has stated his intention to plant 1 billion trees a year, because he realised it was the wrong policy by the government in the past and we're trying to put the forest back. At present, almost no illegal loggers dare to do their job - if there is any, it's very, very small compared to what they did some years ago.

REPORTER: What does the Indonesian Government propose to do to stop this illegal activity?

DR H. SUSWONO (TRANSLATION): TRANSLATOR: If there is strong evidence of illegal activities, the government will take strong action. Any breach of the law will be dealt with harshly.

We've since passed our evidence to the Indonesian authorities but the machinery of government can move slowly here so I decided to pay Duta Palma a visit myself. Duta Palma and its associated companies own palm oil plantations covering 160,000 hectares of land in Indonesia.

REPORTER: Hi. Can I speak to somebody from the Duta Palma company?

I wanted to ask the agribusiness company about the two concessions where I'd seen illegal development. Duta Palma declined to comment, but we know they export their palm oil all around the world, where it is bought by international traders like Wilmar. Wilmar distributes oil from different growers to a wide range of UK companies, including Unilever. Several Unilever products contain palm oil but you won't find those words written on the label.

REPORTER: "Vegetable oil". It doesn't say "palm oil". Why?

MARC ENGEL, UNILEVER CHIEF OF PROCUREMENT: Well, let's say Let me start by saying that we believe in informing the consumer. This is also why on every

REPORTER: You can't inform the consumer if it doesn't say "palm oil". If I go into a supermarket and pick up a tub of Flora margarine, I will never know that this contains palm oil.

MARC ENGEL: You will not see it from the label and there is a technical reason for that - which is that you use a blend from different oils and from one day to the next you slightly different change that blend, and if you would label the individual oils then basically you would have to change your label every week or every month or every day when you make the changes. So there is a technical reason. But we're being very honest of where we are today - 85% of the volume that Unilever uses is not sustainably produced.

Unilever has made an ambitious commitment that by 2015 all of its palm oil will be 'certified sustainable', which means it's from plantations that have passed an environmental and social impact test. But there's a problem. The current supply system means it's not possible to trace the oil back to source to guarantee it doesn't come from illegal plantations.

REPORTER: By 2015, will you be able to trace all of that palm oil from source?

MARC ENGEL: It is indeed intended that by 2015 we should be able to trace that.

REPORTER: 'Should' be able to or 'will' be able to?

MARC ENGEL: Well, again, it's The question that you're asking is, can you segregate that palm oil all the way through on its route to the West? Right now that is not possible, and even though some oil is produced on one plantation which is certified sustainable, the oil will get mixed, and right now it is not possible for us - with the volumes we have - to segregate that logistics.

You can see the difficulty that manufacturers face here in Rotterdam. The palm oil arrives on container ships from all around the world. It's then pumped ashore into giant storage tanks that belong to international palm oil traders. All trace of where the oil comes from disappears in the mix. But a traceable supply of palm oil has been proven possible by companies like Sainsbury's, within their own brand products.

REPORTER: This is one of your products with palm oil in it - right on the front of the box.

JUSTIN KING, SAINSBURY'S CEO: Straight in the middle.

REPORTER: "Made with sustainable palm oil." So it's pretty straightforward.

JUSTIN KING: We were the first company, we think, in the world to put a product, a food product, on our shelves which had sustainable palm oil. It took around 10 years to get the first product on the shelf and we've had to do a tremendous amount of work tracing supply chains all the way back to the farmer at source.

Until the industry can properly segregate palm oil right the way back to the plantations, palm oil from illegal sources will continue to find its way into products on your supermarket shelves. Recently, Unilever terminated a large contract with a supplier called Sinar Mas because of reports it was destroying high-conservation-value forests. Unilever has since told 'Panorama' it intends to try and overcome the supply system problems so that no Duta Palma oil ends up in its products. Some of the UK's biggest manufacturers and retailers are trying to do the right thing, but their efforts are unlikely to slow the pace of deforestation, and the reality is that only 3% of the world's palm oil is currently certified as sustainable. Man continues to be the greatest threat to the orang-utan. Back at the International Animal Rescue centre in Ketapang, there is some excitement. Chingo and Jo Jo have finally arrived at their new home.

KARMELE LLANO SANCHEZ: Yes, Jo Jo! Finally you've got it. Jo Jo! You've never been so up.

REPORTER: Both these animals have been through quite a traumatic experience but now both Jo Jo and Chingo are already bonding. But the sanctuary is only a halfway house for Jo Jo and Chingo. After being taken from their mothers at such a young age, they still need to be taught basic survival skills so that one day they can be returned to the forest.

KARMELE LLANO SANCHEZ: The most important thing right now is that we have to save the forest. If they don't have forest, they can only spend the rest of their lives in a cage, but what is the future for an orang-utan in a cage?

GEORGE NEGUS: The BBC's Raphael Rowe reporting. Duta Palma, the palm oil plantation company featured there, responded to Raphael's report. They claim they've complied with all regulations and they've never engaged in illegal logging. You can see their full response on our website, along with links to more information on that issue. Just go to: Raphael Rowe, the BBC reporter on that yarn, is an interesting character in his own right. From the age of 19, Raphael served 12 years in prison in the UK. However, in July 2000 what turned out to be his wrongful conviction for murder was quashed, but not before he'd studied journalism in prison by correspondence. How about that!