Serious Buffoonery

Standard

A gathering of orangutans is called a buffoonery. A buffoonery of orangutans implies some very high amusement, and indeed, I imagine if enough of the ginger apes were to get together, hilarity and hijinks might ensue.

But as most people know by now, orangutans don’t have much to laugh about. Between deforestation and the illegal animal trade, it’s all been looking a bit grim for the old man of the forest.

A buffoonery of orangutans Artist: Kim Rebecca

A buffoonery of orangutans
Artist: Kim Rebecca

Many years ago, I spent some time working in the biofuels sector, and palm oil was gaining market shares over other types of biodiesel.

Palm oil has some advantages in that palm oil trees can be grown and harvested year round and the yield per acre is better than many other oil crops, including soybeans and rapeseed.

But even back then, we all knew that palm oil had some very serious drawbacks. Besides a couple of technical disadvantages (for example, palm oil biodiesel isn’t as resistant to cold weather as other biodiesel oils, and it has to be transported over rather large distances from plantation to end user), there is one key problem with palm oil: The best growing climates for palm oil plantations are sometimes shared by rainforests. Which means that palm oil production is often based on mass deforestation.

I remember asking an oil trader from Indonesia, a fellow who was proposing some major trade with my company, about this small hiccup in what was supposed to be a renewable, eco-friendly fuel production. What role did safeguarding habitat, for orangutans and countless other creatures and plants, play in sustainable palm oil production?

His response? He laughed and told me that the majority of the Indonesian rainforest had been chopped down and converted to plantations already, so I didn’t need to worry about it anymore. The damage had been done, it was time to make some lemonade out of the environmental lemons we had on hand. As for the animal and plant life? Maybe they’d live in the new plantations, if they didn’t hinder the farming.

Palm oil plantation, Indonesia Photo: Cempaka/Reuters

Palm oil plantation, Indonesia
Photo: Cempaka/Reuters

The company I worked for at the time decided we didn’t need to deal in palm oil at all. It’s nice to take a stand, but in any case, palm oil isn’t just being used for biodiesel fuel. Its uses are many and like the little lies told for social convenience, palm oil can be found almost everywhere.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organization founded in 2004, around the same time I had that disconcerting conversation, undertook an initiative to decouple palm oil production from deforestation. And while the Indonesian trader may have thought he was selling me on palm oil futures, it turns out he was only partially correct. Not all rainforests had been eradicated, and orangutans aren’t really tolerated on plantations.

The RSPO has had some real success lately in achieving the goal of getting companies to agree to use only sustainably produced palm oil that does not result from deforestation. And this, in turn, is good for wildlife and rainforests alike.

Indonesian palm oil crop Source: EUObserver/Friends of the Earth

Indonesian palm oil crop
Source: EUObserver/Friends of the Earth

I suppose a fatalistic approach to matters as they stand might be a comfort to some. After all, if all is lost, why worry about losing any more? Make hay while the sun shines.

A buffoonery of a different sort.

I’m glad organizations like the RSPO, the companies that have decided to join the initiative, and the many wildlife conservation groups in these areas don’t have the same fatalistic sense of humor as my ex-conversation partner.

For an on-the-ground look at deforestation in progress, here’s a good documentary on the complexities of the issues in Papua New Guinea, On Our Land.

2 responses »

  1. Great piece, thank you. You’re right, palm oil is not just used for biodiesel – it’s the new corn. In Australia, nearly every cosmetic product, cleaning product, and processed food (chips, biscuits etc.) contains it – if the ingredients just say ‘vegetable oil’, it’s more than likely got palm oil in it. Many ethical/organic/eco brands still use it in their products too. And even if you don’t care about the environmental issues, it’s one of the worst oils to consume for your health…amazed that we keep pumping it into everything.

    • Thanks for this great comment!
      It’s cheap, and at this point, there is a lot of it that needs selling. It really is the new corn – a market created by government policies of overproduction.

Share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s