The orang-utan population of Indonesia is being driven to the brink of extinction thanks to the massive deforestation underway to satisfy the rapidly growing demand for palm oil as a biofuel. Some scientists estimate that as many as 95 percent of the orang-utans native to Sumatra have already been wiped out.
A report in the Telegraph has detailed the level of devastation wrought on the orang-utan population by deforestation. The creatures not only face extermination thanks to loss of habitat directly; forest felling increasingly puts them in conflict with the local human population. Farmers will kill orang-utans caught raiding crops for food, despite it being illegal.
Dr Ian Singleton, a world authority on orang-utans and the director of Sumatran Orang-utan Conservation Programme told the Telegraph that the population toll on organ-utans and other indigenous animals is being fuelled by the alarming pace of clear-felling taking place across much of northern Sumatra.
“After they’ve cleared the forest I go into some of these places, looking for signs of life. Every living thing, everything that crawls or slithers, even mosses and insects, are obliterated in this process. Everything that lived and breathed is dead!” Singleton said.
“These orphans [in his conservation centre] are the by-product of forest loss. These are the lucky ones, the survivors of this whole process. We don’t see the mothers and fathers that are killed. And even if you’re not killed, or attacked by villagers in plantations, you’ll still die of malnutrition and starvation.”
In December 2013, the new governor of Aceh province, northern Indonesia broke Indonesian law to allow logging to take place in parts of the highly protected Leuser ecosystem, an area of highly biodiverse land declared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to be one of the “world’s most irreplaceable protected areas.”
In amongst the Leuser ecosystem sits the Tripa peat swamp forest, one of three such forests in Leuser. All three are prime orang-utan habitat, as well as being home to a number of other rare species. Twenty five years ago there were 3,000 orang-utans living in the 232 square miles of rainforest. Today, only 200 survive.
But although the Telegraph reports that much of the forest has been cleared to satisfy the west’s growing demand for palm oil, they don’t mention that one of the key drivers for the increase in palm oil use is the EU’s insistence on using biofuels – including biodiesel made from palm oil – to fulfill it’s climate change targets.
Between 2006 and 2012, demand for palm oil as a biofuel increase nearly five fold. The International Institute for Sustainable Development looked at the role of EU biofuels subsidies in driving palm oil production, and found that “the additional demand can be linked primarily to the growth of biodiesel production, which has been stimulated by government policies. IISD estimates the value of the government support to biodiesel in the EU was in the range of €4.6 billion to €5.6 billion in 2011.”
“If no policy change occurs, by 2020 the EU biodiesel sector will consume around 2.6 – 2.7 million tonnes of palm oil, or 40 percent more than in 2012.”
The EU has set itself the target of reducing energy consumption across the member states by 20 percent by 2020 (and, bizarrely, of “decoupling [energy] from economic growth”). Mindful that the transport sector is the most energy hungry, using more than either households or businesses, it set itself the additional target of ensuring that renewables account for at least 10 percent of transport energy consumption by 2020.
Not only is this a problem for the orang-utans, it’s also a massive own-goal in terms of cutting carbon emissions as deforestation and the destruction of peat habitats adds greatly to carbon emissions. Indonesia is now said to be the world’s third largest emitter of carbon after China and the USA.
Ivetta Gerasimchuk, one of the reports authors said “If the EU doesn’t cut its current subsidies to biodiesel, it may, in an indirect way, lead to the cutting down of more rainforests, the conversion of more forest and peat land for palm oil plantations, and the emission of more carbon into the atmosphere.”
The EU is not unaware of the problem. In February the European Parliament’s Environmental Committee met to decide how to solve it. They voted by a large majority in favour of a draft law to cap food oils, including palm oil at 6 percent of the energy requirement, and dictated that advanced biofuels, sourced from seaweed or certain types of waste, should account for at least 1.25 percent of energy consumption in transport by 2020. It is unclear where the remaining 2.75 percent is meant to come from.