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End of the road for orangutans?

October 10, 2012

FMT LETTER: From Sean Whyte, via e-mail

Having just returned from what I think by now was my 21st visit to Indonesia I feel compelled to provide a brief summary of my experiences and conclusions. First and foremost, I neither saw nor heard of any benefits to saving forests as a result of the millions of dollars given by the government of Norway.  It’s as if the money has gone into a black hole.

No one has ever told me of or shown me evidence of any benefits to the environment brought about by the tens of millions of dollars provided by USAid. This money, also, seemingly has disappeared into oblivion.

From time to time we read of the ‘Heart of Borneo’ project managed by WWF. I have absolutely no idea what, if anything, it has achieved. It would be helpful if someone from WWF could write and explain what money has been spent so far on this project and what exactly has it achieved.

What is happening to the populations of orangutans to my mind is clearly genocide, practiced mostly by palm oil companies with the complicity of the government of Indonesia. Might this be why the palm oil industry is so reluctant to endorse a ‘No Kill – Zero Tolerance’ policy?

Malaysian palm oil companies are always being talked about as the main perpetrators of the genocide. One prominent Malaysian palm oil company is also accused of human rights breaches towards indigenous tribes people in north-east Kalimantan. This same company makes big boasts about its environmental policies on its website, which they then proceed to ignore.

I would go so far as to say given the long-time animosity from Indonesians towards Malaysia, one incident such as the killing of an Indonesian worker or NGO, could trigger an uncontrollable backlash towards Malaysia.

The situation now is clearly extremely sensitive. A tinder box, no less, waiting to explode. Unscrupulous Malaysian palm oil companies are to blame. A friend, not an NGO, told me of her recent conversation with two palm oil workers on a the flight from Jakarta to Pangkalanbun.

“I sat between two men, who work as truckers, each on a huge wood harvester, cutting trees. They told me, ‘everybody has to log three ha trees, every day’, that’s only two men out of the hundreds, maybe thousands employed over Kalimantan, each logging about 400 to 500 trees daily and these two have a contract for six months. Imagine. They work for a company jointly owned by a Malaysian and Indonesian company.”

In this same region of Central Kalimantan a major Malaysian palm oil company is pushing ahead to log and plant a large area of pristine rainforest, at least 50% of which is inhabited by orangutans – they will surely all perish.

In Eastern Kalimantan, the Kutai National Park has already been severely and wholly illegally encroached upon. A paved road stretches into the park, bordered on each side with shops, homes, petrol station, brothels, etc. All illegal. All with government connivance.

We stopped at random to ask a shop owner if he ever saw orangutans, even though there were few trees in the area. He told us he did and sometimes they could be seen crossing the road. He offered to obtain a baby for us in return for $250. Another villager some way distant corroborated his story about seeing orangutans cross the road.

Elsewhere people told me of similar situations on West and South Kalimantan. No place is safe from palm oil companies.  It would be impossible to exaggerate the decimation caused by, and illegal acts perpetrated by, the palm oil industry.

Orangutan rescues centre are full. The chances of even 10% of these thousand or so orangutans in rescue centres ever being returned to what remains of the forests, are very remote. They are likely to spend the rest of their lives outgrowing their already small cages and the financial burden of this will probably become untenable.

Recently a baby orangutan was left to die a lonely death in a wooden crate while an orangutan rescue centre resisted all attempts to persuade it to accept the baby while he was still alive and well, a shameful act of betrayal which will soon have this organisation’s supporters in uproar.

Time and again I either saw, or was told of, orangutans in need of urgent rescue but with nowhere for them to go. I even heard of a BKSDA office selling an orangutan to a zoo, and I’m sure this is not uncommon. All over Indonesia orangutans are caged, treated terribly, and there is no hope for them. Why? The government of Indonesia clearly does not care.

Stories abound of NGOs and scientists accepting money from palm oil companies, effectively buying their silence. If we look for a moment at how few scientists and NGOs either write about or campaign on palm oil – the cause of most orangutan deaths, it does tend to lend substance to these allegations. Did you ever read a letter by an Indonesian scientist making a living out of studying orangutans?

On my last day of this recent trip I was asked to visit a lady in a suburb of Jakarta who had three orangutans as pets and wanted now to be rid of them. Most probably they had outgrown their cute and cuddly ages. Unable myself to attend, a colleague will visit this week, but in all honesty there is nothing we can do for them.

With no suitable place to relocate these orangutans their future is unknown.  The future for Indonesia’s orangutans has never looked bleaker.

When President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said, “to save the orangutan we have to save the forest,” in December 2010 at the Bali Climate Change Conference, was he being economical with the truth or simply telling people what they wanted to hear as this tends to attract more funds to drop into that bottomless black hole?

In June of this year the President said: “Losing our tropical rain forests would constitute the ultimate national, global and planetary disaster.”

With what little time is left, the President needs to stop talking and begin actually saving forests. More foreign money is not the answer. Taking personal responsibility for the forests, is. Indonesia is awash with money and perfectly able to pay its own way.

The writer is CEO of Nature Alert


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