Serious Buffoonery

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.

Mineral Relocation

Limestone is the key ingredient in cement, and is quarried around the world for mixing into one of the world’s most popular building materials. Limestone is composed mainly of CaCO3, calcium carbonate.

Coincidentally, the shells of the small snails shown above – like most gastropod shells – are also composed mostly of CaCO3. These little lopsided wonders, part of a small group of newly-identified members of the Plectostoma genus, live mostly on limestone hills in Malaysia, Sumatra and Thailand. Thor-Seng Liew of the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden, the Netherlands, who describes them in his recently published paper, has dubbed them ‘microjewels‘.

Unfortunately for them and their Plectostoma brethren, limestone for cement is vastly more popular among humans that calcium carbonate found in snail shells, no matter how asymmetrically lovely and unusual.

Ten of the 31 micro-landsnails listed in the research have been assessed to be critically endangered – or rather, nine are critically endangered, one is already extinct. The researchers are submitting all of them for classification and possible protection under the IUCN Red List.

To be fair, the limestone hills themselves are disappearing at a rapid rate, their CaCO3 headed for cement to build new hills in the form of buildings, somewhere else, and without the delicate CaCO3 of their former inhabitants, the microjewel snails.

Or rather, with their CaCO3, but minus the snails.

Limestone extraction at Bukit Panching, Malaysia, 2003-2010. The top image was taken after the 300 meter hill had already been mostly removed. The lower image shows what is now a lake where the hill once stood. Source: SiputKuning

Limestone extraction at Bukit Panching, Malaysia, 2003-2010. The top image was taken after the 300 meter hill had already been mostly removed. The lower image shows what is now a lake where the hill once stood.
Source: SiputKuning