Orangutans and the Fires in Indonesia–an Environmental Tipping Point

By Neva Knott

Orangutans hold a special place in my heart. My father, Norman P. Knott, was a zoologist. In the early 1970s he worked for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). We lived in Thailand and often dad would take the family with him to other Asian countries he visited for work. It was on one of these trips I fell in love with the orange Great Ape, as did my little sister. We were at a zoo and the larger male orangutan in captivity there was smoking a cigarette, an indelible image etched into my 11-year-old mind.

He was just he first of many orangutans we’d see while living and traveling in Asia.

In a later conversation between my dad and my older sister–she had asked him what he felt most proud of in his life–he said, “Creating protected habitat for orangutans.” My sister was taken aback, as the family folklore goes; she felt slighted that dad put the orangutan above his four daughters in his pride of accomplishment. When she shared this anecdote with me she said, “I said, but you have children.” My little sister and I somehow approve of dad’s heartfelt championship of the funny-looking orange and fuzzy animals we loved so much in our childhood. Truth be told, both of us still do hold them dear.

Source: wiki commons.

I’ve been following the news about the fires in Indonesia since it broke a few weeks ago. After the first few reports, focused on the fires themselves–locations, cause, containment–I began to see pieces about trapped and threatened orangutans. As I planned my next post for The Ecotone Exchange, I decided to write about them, thinking “this is another opportunity to show the power of consumerism and to talk about how we shop matters” (because the fires are a direct result of slash and burn clearing for palm oil plantations). Many of the reports I’d read explained rescue missions to get orangutans out of burning forests and to safety, another positive, I naively thought. Until last night.

My father’s legacy is going up in smoke.

Orangutans leaving burning forest. Original source unknown.

Orangutans leaving burning forest. Original source unknown.

I began my research into the depth of the orangutans’s situation–I always like to go beyond the click-bait information–with a google search of UN-FAO orangutan habitat. I crossed imaginary fingers that dad’s name would pop up, but his work was so long ago, I didn’t expect to see Norman P. Knott in my search results. I did find the recent (2011) report published by the United Nations Environment Programme, “Orangutans and the Economics of Sustainable Forest Management in Sumatra.” The photographs in the report are telling–I hope you click on the link and take them in. Information in these types of reports is always rich fodder, and not the type of information the general public reads, but I’m sure we’d all act and react differently if we had these types details easily in front of us. In fact, sometimes I think my work as a blogger is really that of extraction. The information, based on research, in this report frames the background of the orangutan’s plight in Indonesia:

First and of foremost importance, “With current trends in forest loss, the Sumatran Orangutan (Pongo abelii) may well be the first Great Ape to go extinct in the wild.” In 1900, the population was 85,000. Now, it’s 6,600. This is a decrease of 92 per cent and has landed the species on the Red List. Bornean Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) are also rapidly declining in number, down from 54,000, and listed as endangered. Information for the UNEP report was gathered in the Leuser Ecosystem, Aceh, and North Sumatra–areas currently burning.

Orangutans are extremely vulnerable to extinction due to a combination of factors. They have an exceptionally slow reproductive rate–Sumatran orangutan females give birth to just one infant at a time, only every eight or nine years. Indeed, the loss of as little as 1 per cent of females each year can place a population on an irreversible trajectory to extinction; they require vast areas of contiguous rainforest to live in; they are very much restricted to lowland forest areas.

Orangutans are most threatened by fragmented habitat–an issue similar to the one I wrote about last week in my post about Wildlife Bridges. The orangutan’s habitat fragmentation is due to forest loss which results from a combination of road development, expansion of large- scale agriculture, logging concessions, mining and small-scale encroachment. To illustrate the magnitude of forest loss–between 1985 and 2007, 49 per cent of all forests on the island were destroyed. Road development is tied to economic development, but the problem for the ecosystem in general and orangutans specifically is that roads are not planned to maintain habitat. The authors of the report state, “These threats can be directly attributed to in- adequate cross-sectoral land use planning, reflecting needs for short-term economic growth, and a lack of environmental law enforcement.”

Of these, the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations in recent years probably represents the greatest single agricultural threat to orangutan survival in the region. The establishment of many of these plantations has resulted in significant losses in orangutan habitat, since they have been created by converting forests instead of making use of already deforested areas, such as existing agricultural or low current use value land. Of note, one of the drivers of this rapid expansion that exists outside of the consumer market is population increase in Indonesia. In this report, the UNEP explains that 50 per cent of Indonesians rely on agriculture for income, and theirs is a population growing rapidly, so the actual number of persons represented by that percentage is much greater than it was even a few years ago–more people to support washes out as more cleared land.

As I read on into the report, I gained a little hope. I was bolstered by the fact that orangutans have been protected since 1931. Most of their habitat is in protected areas on Sumatra the rest of Indonesia. New regulations–as of the publication of the report–are in effect to make the spatial planning process one that is habitat-friendly. The government seems to want to work for orangutans, “The Government of Indonesia has ratified and integrated into national law many international environmental treaties and conventions (e.g. the Convention on Biological Diversity, Convention on International Trade in En- dangered Species, the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, the UNESCO World Heritage Convention). Most of these support orangutan conservation at the national and international level. In 2007, the Indonesian government also released its own Indonesian National Orangutan Conservation Strategy and Action Plan (2007-2017, Ministry of Forestry 2009) to protect orangutans and their habitat, which was subsequently signed into law and officially launched by the president.”

Yet, the slash and burn deforestation–a cheap and dirty way to clear land–continues.

National Public Radio reported in “As Indonesia’s Annual Fires Rage, Plenty of Blame but No Responsibility” just a few days ago that much of the deforestation for palm oil is conducted illegally:

“Indonesia’s government has blamed both big palm oil companies and small freeholders. Poynton says the culprits are often mid-sized companies with strong ties to local politicians. He describes them as lawless middlemen who pay local farmers to burn forests and plant oil palms, often on other companies’ concessions.

“There are these sort of low-level, Mafioso-type guys that basically say, ‘You get in there and clear the land, and I’ll then finance you to establish a palm oil plantation,’ ” he says.

The problem is exacerbated by ingrained government corruption, in which politicians grant land use permits for forests and peat lands to agribusiness in exchange for financial and political support.

“The disaster is not in the fires,” says independent Jakarta-based commentator Wimar Witoelar. ‘It’s in the way that past Indonesian governments have colluded with big palm oil businesses to make the peat lands a recipe for disaster.’ Wimar notes that previous administrations are partly to blame for nearly two decades of annual fires.”

All that said, NPR cites Indonesia’s current and fairly new president, Joko Widodo, referred to as Jokowi, to be a man willing to take proactive measure to combat this issue, “The president has deployed thousands of firefighters and accepted international assistance. He has ordered a moratorium on new licenses to use peat land and ordered law enforcers to prosecute people and companies who clear land by burning forests.”

I find it horrific that these land-clearing fires have been part of Business As Usual for so long. The fires in 1997, according to the UNEP report, cost Indonesia 10 billion dollars; this year’s fires, according to the New York Times, cost 14 billion. I’ve read several news reports that the carbon emissions from this year’s are more than what the US in it’s entirety emits. These figures easily refute the economic feasibility argument in favor of clearing forest for palm oil.

From ABC Australia’s article, “Indonesian Fires: Forget the Orangutans, Is the Blaze a Tipping Point for Carbon Emissions?,”:

“The fires in Indonesia are more than just a threat to endangered orangutans. They have shortened by up to two years the window to reduce carbon emissions and avoid runaway climate change, according to one of the CSIRO’s leading climate scientists.

The head of the Global Carbon Project at the CSIRO, Pep Canadell, said the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may have exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time in 2 million years, because of the 1 billion tonnes of carbon released by the fires in a two-month period.

Dr Canadell said the daily emissions of the Indonesian fires had been equal to the daily emissions of the US, accelerating humanity’s progress along the upward line of global emissions by about one to two years.”

As Take Part reports, there are some ugly outcomes of the orangutans having to flee their habitat because of the fires, “Orangutans have more to fear than just the fire. The flames and smoke are pushing them out of their already reduced habitats and closer to human villages, where the adults are killed and the young apes are sold into the pet trade. In the past week, International Animal Rescue saved one such young orangutan, Gito, who had been kept in a cardboard box and left in the sun to die.”

By now these sorts of events should be taken as a death knell ringing across the globe. It seems humans have come so far from living in caves that we’ve forgotten we are part of nature and its patterns. These fires and the plight of the orangutans is emblematic that we cannot succeed by pulling apart ecosystems, using one part that is economically beneficially and saying to hell with the rest. These fires and the plight of orangutans is another example that large-scale mono-cropping is the days-gone-by way of agriculture; it does not work with such a densely populated planet as we live on today. The UNEP put these words to the root cause of the problem, “The current economic system, which is based on the assumption that most of what is taken from the environment is a public good, or, in other words, that it is “free,” is leading humanity to either overexploit what nature provides or to destroy it completely. This has created an economic system in which one service has been maximized, usually productivity–[such as quick, low-cost slash and burn clearing], at the expense of others.”

Here at The Ecotone Exchange our moniker is Positive Stories of the Environment. Is there anything positive in this mess? I don’t know, but I was compelled to write about it anyway…

In the short term, several animal rescues like International Animal Rescue and Sumatran Orangutan Society are working on the ground in Indonesia to get the animals to safety. Follow this link to a National Geographic photo-essay, “Saving Sumatra’s Orangutans.” 

There are models for better forestry practices (about which I’ve written extensively), and as the UNEP suggests, there’s much already deforested land available to palm oil growers–some in Indonesia, some elsewhere–and realistically, orangutans take up very little space on this planet, yet palm oil can grow many places.

One thing that’s got to change is environmental standards everywhere. Much of what we consume in America is made elsewhere–to a large degree because companies don’t want to adhere to the environmental, non-pollution, standards here. So we outsource our pollution.

Indonesia is home to the Sustainable Palm Oil Platform, an advocacy that trains and certifies sustainably grown palm oil. Another agency, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, offers similar certification. And several non-profits publish lists of palm oil free products. But palm oil is in everything–I don’t think we can responsibly-shop our way out of this one. Yesterday I thought it might be an option, because so many environmental problems are market-driven (as is this one).

Nor is this a simple issue of saving a charismatic species. Contrastingly, I am looking at the plight of the orangutans as an indicator, I’m looking at them as an indicator of human outcomes. Humans and orangutans share 97 per cent of our DNA. If these Great Apes face extinction from this level of habitat destruction, might not we be next?

This is truly “the horror, the horror.” In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, this is all the character Kurtz can say after living alongside the atrocities of European colonization in Africa, after seeing how the “natives” are treated by his countrymen. In the movie adaptation of Conrad’s book, Apocalypse Now, the story is set during the Vietnam War and Kurtz’s last words are the same, “the horror, the horror.”

So I don’t know what the positive is in this story–maybe it is the awareness raised around the world. Maybe it’s that the ideas in the UNEP report can now become reality under the leadership of Indonesian President Widodo. Maybe it’s that the connection between a perceived human need for a product–palm oil, and the natural world–the burning forests and fleeing orangutans, and human welfare–health problems caused by smoke and smog from the fires, and economic ruin are made plain so that future disasters will be avoided by better planning.

My father’s legacy is ablaze and I think I’m going to adopt some orangutans as Christmas presents.

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5 thoughts on “Orangutans and the Fires in Indonesia–an Environmental Tipping Point

  1. Pingback: Orangutans and the Fires in Indonesia–an Environmental Tipping Point | GreenEcosystems

  2. Really good article, thanks for putting in so many amazing links. It is so difficult to avoid buying palm oil, though it’s positive to see how many companies are now switching to ‘sustainable/fair trade’ sources. And I love the idea of adopting orangutans as Christmas presents!

  3. Really good article, thanks for putting in so many amazing links. It is so difficult to avoid buying Palm oil, though it is positive to see how many companies are now switching to ‘sustainable fair trade sources’. And I love the idea of adopting orangutans for Christmas presents!

    • I totally agree about how hard it is to avoid palm oil. Forcing sustainability on producers is a good strategy! I was impressed with some of the names on the list. Thanks for your comment. Neva

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