Another year has passed, and it is time to reflect on the events of the past year. Forest protection and conservation for the benefit of the wild orangutan populations is one of Save the Orangutan’s core missions. A lot has happened both on a global scale and locally in Borneo in this regard during 2018. This article is an attempt to recap and put into perspective major events from 2018 that either directly or indirectly affected our mission and daily efforts to protect the natural habitat of the orangutan, the rainforest.

COP Summit on biodiversity lacked support

Both a global climate summit (COP24 in Poland) and a global summit on biodiversity (COP14 in Egypt) were held in 2018. As in the past years, the climate summit made the most headlines and attracted the most attention from media and politicians all around the world. For instance, the Minister for Environment and Food of Denmark cancelled his plans to attend the COP14 summit, but he found the time to attend the COP24 summit. This is a great pity because the topics of climate and biodiversity ought to be equally important and crucial.

Biodiversity, it seems, continues to be viewed as the little sister of climate despite experts’ conclusion that natural mass extinction is an equally great and urgent threat to humanity as global temperature increases are.

The last day of COP14 in Egypt. (Photo by IISD/ENB | Francis Dejon)

Loud cries against deforestation

A positive change with regards to ‘global attention’ to both climate and biodiversity occurred towards the end of 2018 with a line of campaigns for forest protection and restoration. A great example of these campaigns is Alec Baldwin’s and Dr. Jane Goodall’s appearances in The YEARS Project video “The Forgotten Solution”. Watch the video here:

The video is a great example of how simple it is to explain forest protection and its positive impact on our globe, and how forest protection functions as a means to fulfil climate goals.

Another loud voice in the choir for forest protection in 2018 was the UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Guterres committed himself to the cause when he called for a necessary halt to further deforestation.

Climate change and the general condition of our globe is officially a threat to billions of people all over the world and it must be put on the world leaders’ agendas. António Guterres calls for action and stresses the need for a change in attitude. Stopping further deforestation, restoring destroyed and cleared forests, and changing the way we cultivate the soil are some of the changes, Guterres deems necessary to be put into effect before 2020.

These are loud and important outcries. Even though a portion of the outcries are ignored, we hope they will prompt to political action to stop further deforestation around the world.

António Guterres delivering a powerful message: Stop deforestation now! (UN Photo)

The president of Indonesia (temporarily) hindered new oil palm plantations

The president of Indonesia, Joko Wikodo (Jokowi), signed a special directive stopping the further licensing of oil palm plantations. This temporary halt (moratorium) to issuing licenses had an immediate effect and the directive is in effect for three years. While signing the directive, Jokowi urged relevant ministries and local governments and districts to go through all the licenses they have already issued. The purpose of this is to clarify and change the oil palm plantations’ role in deforestation and a concrete contribution to Indonesia’s climate and biodiversity efforts. The increasing establishment of oil palm plantations and the industry’s development is the indirect cause of Indonesia’s CO2 emissions, which are among the largest in the world.

A new hope calls for action

The palm oil industry is one of the major forces behind deforestation in Borneo, and it is thus an accomplice to the destruction of more than 60 % of the orangutans’ natural habitat in Borneo within the past 50 years. The establishment of industrial oil palm plantations have had severe consequences on nature in Indonesian Sumatra, which is the only other home to the remaining wild orangutan populations aside from Borneo.

Jokowi’s moratorium was definitely a step in the right direction. It provides a necessary breathing space to a development so rapid that none of the parties involved have been able to evaluate its consequences. The demand for palm oil has increased explosively in the last decades, and at the same time, Indonesia has become the major exporter of the vegetable oil, which can be used in numerous products.

Deforestation continues to pose a great threat to the orangutan’s survival in the wild despite new positive outcries from the Indonesian president.

Several environmental organisations, including Save the Orangutan, have called for political action similar to Jokowi’s moratorium. It is absolutely necessary to halt the development and take the proper precautions for nature and humanity alike.

However, a moratorium is still just words on a piece of paper, and its real effect can only be evaluated properly in the future. Indonesia is a large country with several decision-making bodies, and the moratorium must be effectuated locally if Jokowi’s halt to deforestation is to succeed. Additionally, several already issued licenses that have not yet been put to use exist, and the moratorium focuses solely on oil palm plantations and therefore affects only a single industry among several causing deforestation (e.g. mining).

RSPO agreed on new and improved criteria

Save the Orangutan primarily focuses its efforts in Borneo where the rainforests are pressured by the expanding palm oil industry, mining, and logging. Palm oil is still one of the most important exports in Indonesia and Malaysia, and manufactures have been issued the majority of licenses to forest and land (concessions) on Indonesian Borneo. The largest community body for palm oil (manufactures, purchasers, and organisations) is RSPO. RSPO is currently the best bet to establishing a new sustainable norm in palm oil production, which takes real precautions to nature and all parties involved.

Unfortunately, it is clear as day that forests are cleared to benefit cultivation and plantations when seeing Borneo from above.

RSPO held a meeting and a general assembly towards the end of 2018 with new criteria on the agenda. We followed the meetings and saw a broad agreement on new and more ambitious criteria. Time will tell whether manufactures will meet the new criteria and whether the number of members will increase.

We are of course concerned with whether actual considerations to the orangutans’ natural habitat will be taken in the planning of plantations. Moreover, we are concerned with whether the management of wild orangutans wandering onto plantations is in accordance with the conservation laws the orangutans are protected by. The latter concern has laid the foundation to a new project we have started up with our Indonesian partner BOS Foundation. The new project aims to mitigate human-orangutan conflicts in oil palm plantations near Mawas.

Fact: The orangutan’s home is still under great pressure

In the summer of 2018, we shared the news that 2017 numbers revealed a decrease in deforestation of primary forests in Borneo compared to prior years. Sure, this is a positive development, but deforestation is still happening at an alarming rate. An estimate of approximately 80% of Bornean orangutans live outside of protected forest areas and their home is in danger.

The pressure on the orangutans’ natural habitats must be reduced if we as a world society are to come up with solutions to establish self-sustaining orangutan populations in the future before it is too late. We must reduce the pressure if we want to conserve the unique and biodiverse ecosystems that only exist in the tropical rainforest.

An unfair battle for territory. (Photo: International Animal Rescue / Caters News)

A powerful video and picture circulated in 2018 showing an orangutan walking towards a bulldozer. The episode played out when a group of workers were clearing a forest area. Watch the video here:

Such episodes are rarely documented. Sadly, deforestation of orangutan habitats was still the grim reality of 2018. However, we hope the 2018 numbers will reveal a further reduction in deforestation.

Overall, 2018 brought frail hope for a better future for the orangutan and its habitat, even though most of it still has to be translated into actions. However, our efforts to raise awareness of the critical situation and to continue starting up and improving projects in Borneo aiming to save the orangutan remain unchanged as we enter a new year.