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Palm Oil in Food, Cosmetics Linked to Orangutan Extinction

From: Environment News Service <

Popular Oil in Food, Cosmetics Linked to Orangutan Extinction

LONDON, UK, September 28, 2005 (ENS) - Consumption of palm oil, a vegetable oil found in one in 10 products on supermarket shelves, is driving the orangutan towards extinction, new research shows. The "Oil for Ape Scandal," a report published Friday by Friends of the Earth and orangutan conservation groups, concludes that without urgent intervention the palm oil trade could cause the extinction of the orangutan, Asia's only great ape, within 12 years. Palm oil is found in bread, crackers, chips, margarine and cereals as well as personal care and beauty products such as soap and lipstick. Environmental groups have warned for years that oil palm plantations are associated with rainforest destruction as well as human rights abuse, but the report finds that most UK companies do not know where their palm oil comes from.

Ninety percent of the world’s palm oil exports come from the oil palm plantations of Malaysia and Indonesia. Most of these plantations are on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The same lowland forest that the oil palm industry favors for conversion to palm plantations is the only remaining habitat of the orangutan.

Mother and baby orangutan are both at risk as oil palm plantations take over their ha (Photo © Helen Buckland courtesy Friends of the Earth) The report finds that almost 90 percent of the orangutan's habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia has now been destroyed. Some experts estimate that 5,000 orangutan perish as a result every year.

The researchers found that oil palm plantations have now become the primary cause of the orangutans' decline, wiping out its rainforest home in Borneo and Sumatra.

Dr. Willie Smits, founder of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, said, "The rate of loss of orangutan has never been greater than in the last three years, and oil palm plantations are mostly to blame."

New evidence shows that orangutan rescue centers in Indonesia are over-flowing with orphaned baby orangutans rescued from forests being cleared to make way for oil palm plantations.

The Indonesian government is now planning to convert a significant area of Tanjung Puting National Park, the world's most famous protected area for orangutan, into an oil palm plantation.

Professor Biruté Galdikas, founder of the Orangutan Foundation International, has worked for years to conserve orangutans in Indonesia's national parks. "The orangutan is endangered because of habitat loss. Today the greatest threat to orangutan habitat is the continued expansion of oil palm plantations," she said. "Palm oil is the greatest enemy of orangutan and their continued survival in the wild."

Professor Birute Galdikas with orangutan mother and juvenile at Camp Leakey in Kalimantan Tengah, Borneo, Indonesia. (Photo by Susan Thornton courtesy NREL)

In the food industries, palm oil is the oil of choice for manufacturing solid fat products. Palm oil olein and stearin are popularly used worldwide in making margarine, shortenings and confectionery, and in frying snack foods.

Palm oil is cost-effective as it needs not go through the hydrogenation process and does not contain artery clogging trans-fats. Its high content of natural antioxidants and its stability at high temperatures make it excellent as a deep frying medium. It also gives fried products a longer shelf life, while its bland taste brings out the natural flavors of food.

Palm oil is also used in the manufacture of soaps, detergents and other surfactants. It is a raw material for producing oleochemicals, fatty acids, fatty alcohols, glycerol and other derivatives for the manufacture of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, household and industrial products.

Oleochemicals manufactured from palm oil and palm kernel oil are now popular for the manufacture of environmentally friendly detergents as they are readily biodegradable.

Research by Friends of the Earth found that at least 84 percent of UK companies are failing to take effective action to ensure they do not buy palm oil from destructive sources and that not one single UK supermarket knows where the palm oil originates in the products it sells.

Friends of the Earth and orangutan conservation groups say that the failure of UK companies to take action shows that they cannot be trusted to act responsibly. They are calling on the UK government to give company directors a legal duty to minimize their environmental impacts through the Company Law Reform Bill, which will have its first reading in Parliament later this year.

Baby orangutans like this one are being thrown into shelters as their habitat is destroyed for oil palm plantations. (Photo © Orangutan Foundation)

Two weeks ago the United Nations published the Kinshasa Declaration, an action plan backed by the UK government to protect crucial forest areas and save the world's great apes from extinction. The Indonesian Government signed on to this agreement but so far Malaysia has failed to do so.

Friends of the Earth and the orangutan conservation groups urge both governments to implement the declaration and end the conversion of orangutan habitat into oil-palm plantations.

Friends of the Earth Palm Oil Campaigner Ed Matthew said, "While the UK Government is prepared to fund international ape conservation it is failing to clean up its own back yard. Over 100 UK companies and every single British supermarket is helping fuel the obliteration of orangutan habitat. The Government must amend the Company Law Reform Bill to stop UK companies acting so destructively."

Research by Friends of the Earth shows that the forest fires which ravaged the island of Sumatra in August, and continue to burn today, were mostly set by palm oil companies clearing land to set up their plantations. It is estimated that one third of the orangutan population on Borneo was killed by the massive forest fires of 1998.

Dr. Ian Singleton, Scientific Director for the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, said, "We have already lost huge areas of orangutan habitat and tens of thousands of orangutan to the palm oil industry. Now there are reports of an "oil palm fence" which will stretch 845 kilometers (525 miles) along the border with Malaysia in Borneo, crossing through orangutan habitat. The problem is truly immense."