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.

Saving the World One Less Pickle at a Time

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By Neva Knott

I teach Freshman Composition. Recently, I assigned Charles Fishman’s “The Squeeze,” a chapter from his book, The Wal-Mart Effect. Fishman’s book was published in 2006–it’s been around awhile, and it is not my story here. Nor is Wal-Mart. I want to talk about another effect, an environmental effect exemplified by Fishman’s story of the gallon jar of pickles.

“The Squeeze” begins:

“A gallon-sized jar of whole pickles is something to behold. The jar itself is the size of a small aquarium. The fat green pickles, floating in swampy juice, look reptilian, their shapes exaggerated by the glass of the jar. The jar weighs twelve pounds, too big to carry with one hand.

“The gallon jar of pickles is a display of abundance and excess. It is entrancing, and also vaguely unsettling. Wal-Mart fell in love with Vlasic’s gallon jar of pickles.

“Wal-Mart priced it at $2.97…”.

This low price created an unbalanced demand for a gallon jar of pickles. As Fishman explains in his essay, families bought the gigantic jar rather than one of more practical size because of the price, “200,000 gallons of pickles, just in gallon jars…every week. Whole fields of cucumbers were heading out the door.” Families would “eat a quarter of a jar and throw the thing away when it got moldy.” In turn, cucumber growers were unable to fill the demand to Vlasic, and here in lies the environmental problem that is my story.

Every time a consumer–any one of us–spends a dollar,  he or she is creating an environmental impact. Here’s how the waste of pickles ripples through the environment:

  • All those gallon jars were trucked to Wal-Mart, so there’s fuel source and expenditure and carbon emissions to consider;
  • All that fuel was drilled for somewhere, and that process affects water and air quality;
  • Processing all those cucumbers into pickles took large amounts of water and energy;
  • Manufacturing the glass gallon jars also took large amounts of water and energy;
  • Growing cucumbers is water-intensive, so all the water used to grow the thrown-out extras went to waste;
  • Growing cucumbers is also fertilizer and pesticide-intensive (those Vlasic pickles aren’t from organically grown vegetables), and that fertilizer poisons water and creates green-house gases;
  • Chemical run-off from major agricultural regions causes dead zones in the ocean;
  • Farming involves fossil fuel, so more carbon emissions and fuel expenditure;
  • Agriculture requires that land be cleared to make fields, so deforestation occurs. No trees means no carbon storage, so more is emitted into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas;
  • Deforestation causes habitat loss which contributes to endangerment of species;
  • And I bet most of those moldy glass jars went into the landfill rather than the recycling bin.

When families chose to buy that jar, symbolic of “abundance and excess,” they also chose to add to these environmental problems. As consumers we have, embedded in our daily habits, more power than we realize in terms of environmental solutions.

Wal-Mart’s use of the gallon jar of pickles is not much different than the recent free shipping gimmick employed by companies like Zappos and Amazon. This past holiday season, NPR covered the effects of free shipping on working conditions at both of these companies (actually, Zappos is now owned by Amazon). I know working conditions is not an environmental concern, but it’s a similar consumer issue. By paying $5 for having my shoes sent to my home instead of expecting them to arrive at no cost to me, I can promote fair treatment of workers in those supply warehouses. Same with the pickles–by purchasing only a usable amount, the consumer takes strain off the environment being used to produce the wasted excess.

By wasting pickles, we’re wasting land, water, air, fuel, and putting at risk the vitality of other species.

Environmental Storytelling–John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers

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Photo courtesy of US Department of Transportation

By Neva Knott

Recently, I read John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers, a collect of ethnographies about people who drive 18-wheelers, tow boats, and coal trains. The collection is a look at the sub-cultures that propel the American lifestyle–and is an engaging and enjoyable read. Three essays in particular stood out to me.

“A Fleet of One” in which McPhee joins long-haul truck driver Don Ainsworth for a 3,000-plus mile journey across the country, in a tanker carrying hazmats. Though the story McPhee gives reference to ecological aspects of places Ainsworth’s truck rolls past. “Deadman Pass, the Blue Mountains, the Oregon Trail, The Great Divide Basin, the Carolina piedmont, the Appalachians, and the Rockies, are all specific geographical markers. He gives detail to scenery with a description of the Yakima River, “…deeply incised and ran in white water past vineyards and fruit trees, among windbreaks of Lombardy poplars. Hops were growing on tall poles and dangling like leis. There was so much beauty in the wide valley it could have been in Italy,” and comments that, “The State of Washington was bright enough, however, to require that a truck stop in the beautiful forest of Englemann spruce and Douglas fir be invisible from the interstate, right down to the last billboard.” The early descriptions of landscape signal McPhee’s point of view as he begins his ride with Ainsworth. He leaves off these ecological observations as he enters further into the world of the trucker, of the road. There is not a balanced amount or abundance of ecological information in the essay, yet McPhee’s environmental commentary versus his reportage of trucker life, truck stops, tank washes and off-loading docks establishes a contrast of place, one that suggests that McPhee sees the landscape of the road as part of the larger American landscape but realizes this is not the normal view from the driver’s seat.

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Photo courtesy of wiki commons

In “Tight-Assed River,” McPhee examines life as a tow boat crewman on the Illinois River. Interestingly, more freight moves via waterways than across highways. In as much as McPhee engages his readers with the characters who pilot these boats, he reports on the  the environmental  history of the Illinois river and “the rearrangement of nature” that entailed dredging and the building of levees in an attempt to create an open-water route from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. In these few pages, McPhee explains the exploration and the geological history of the Illinois River basin. He outlines the twentieth-century prosperity along the Illinois. It was prosperity derived from the environmental bounty, “…the Illinois River was second only to the Columbia among commercial river fisheries in the United States. In 1908, twenty-five hundred Illinois fishermen caught ten per cent of the entire U. S. riverine catch.” Hunters “harvested tens of thousands of ducks,” and mussel beds provided the raw material for “numerous button factories.” This prosperity was rendered extinct when “engineers reversed the Chicago River” and the Illinois became part of Chicago’s sewage system. To conclude this exposition, McPhee cites the Clean Water Act of 1972, explaining that, “The river is not foul, as it once was, but it has a permanent tan, a beige opacity from agricultural runoff.” He quotes Tom Amstrong, the tow boat captain, “we’re brown-water people,” as connection between the history of the river and its present quality.

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Photo courtesy of wiki commons

The essay “Coal Train” is a reminder of the overarching impact something like opening up a new coal mine can have. Not only was the Powder River Basin landscape devastated, a whole new burden was put upon the rail system. McPhee explains the current boon to coal trains was a result of the Clean Air Act  of 1970, “Powder River Basin coal…is as much as five times lower in sulfur than Appalachian coal. With the Clean Air Act, power plants were required to scrub sulfur out or burn low-sulfur coal.” Consistent with his environmental commentary in the previous essays, McPhee steps away from the narrative of the train operators to explain the landscape of the coal mine itself, calling the mining of the Powder River Basin, “an invasion of the planet unprecedented in scale.” The Orin Line, known as the Coal Line, cuts through Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming. McPhee visits the Black Thunder Mine, where he found, “The faces of the canyon walls were for the most part jet black—beds of coal eight to ten stories thick.” He describes the extent to which the mining is digging into the mountains. Even so, there is enough coal for another two hundred years. McPhee concludes this scene with this comment, “On the horizon there were no trees. Deer and antelope were everywhere at play, much too young to care what had happened to the range,” suggesting the National Grassland is not preserved as it should be because of the mining. In conclusion of his visit to the mine McPhee relays these statistics, “From mines along the Orin Line, twenty-three thousand coal trains annually emerge—that is, about thirty four thousand miles of rolling coal, going off as units to become carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, water, ash, and heat, and to air-condition…”. In listing the by-products of using heat as fuel for power plants, he is listing the greenhouse gases produced in the process.

While the main narrative in each of these essays is the story of people in jobs that power America, McPhee positions himself as an environmental storyteller. His environmental commentary elucidates the ecological impacts of these modes of transportation. Uncommon Carriers is an interesting read about jobs and American sub-cultures, and it is an important piece of environmental storytelling.