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The Toronto Star

Lucrative Palm Oil Crop Putting Red Apes in Danger

Marc Kielburger and Craig Kielburger

A Sumatran orangutan is seen at a zoo in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, in June, 2008. (BOS/SAVETHEORANGUTAN.CO.UK)

Kesi's name could not be more fitting. It means "child born in difficult times."

Kesi was given the Swahili name at a rescue centre on whose doorstep she arrived at just 3 months old. Her mother had been killed by machetes. Kesi survived the attack but lost her left hand and received a deep wound on her foot.

She was brought to the Nyaru Menteng Rescue Center wrapped in a blanket. She was nursed back to health by the staff. Soon, the baby orangutan learned to play and climb like the others.

The Nyaru Menteng, in Indonesian Borneo, is one of world's largest ape rescue operations. It's seeing an influx of orangutans like Kesi, born into difficult times.

"The orangutans are being slaughtered," says Richard Zimmerman, director of Orangutan Outreach, a U.S.-based NGO that works to preserve the orangutan's habitat. "We prefer to say murdered because these creatures are so closely related to us."

It's hard to believe anyone would want to hurt Kesi. Orangutans are gentle creatures and Kesi's eyes have the intelligence that so closely resembles that of humans.

But, it's humans who are clear-cutting Kesi's rainforest habitat in Indonesia and Malaysia. Orangutans are being forced from their homes. Adults are shot on sight while babies are sold into the black market as pets.

And, it's all happening in the name of palm oil.

Palm oil is one of the most widely used vegetable oils in the world. It is found in products ranging from ice cream and cookies to soap and detergents. More recently, it has been used in biofuels.

In the past year, the palm oil business has been on a roller-coaster ride. The price of the commodity derived from the oil palm plant hit an all-time high of $1,239 per ton in March before falling to a three-year low of $376 in October. During that period, farmers in Borneo and Sumatra began clear-cutting rainforest to plant more of the lucrative crop.

But, despite the fall in price, the razing of rainforest continues. It's estimated an area the size of three football fields is cut down every minute of every day, displacing forest residents - including the already endangered orangutan.

"It's absolutely devastating," says Zimmerman. "It's been a free-for-all because the prices were so high. Now that prices are low, we have a worthless crop and now we have people starving, too."

Independent farmers, who make up about 30 to 35 per cent of Malaysia's palm oil industry, are seeing their profits disappear and businesses pushed to bankruptcy.

While Kesi may have been born in difficult times, Zimmerman says things can improve.

Palm oil has alternatives like corn or soy oil. Or, as Zimmerman says, "good, old-fashioned butter." As well, it could be a sustainable crop, with proper regulations. The oil palm grows easily on degraded grassland, meaning that clear-cutting is unnecessary. Plantations could expand onto barren lands without encroaching on the rainforests.

Cutting out unsustainable palm oil can be tough. It is often labelled vegetable oil and some companies don't know where it comes from.

By pushing for clearer labelling practices, consumers can make more informed choices. And, better enforcement of illegal clear-cutting on the ground in Borneo and Sumatra could save what remains of the orangutan's habitat.

But, measures need to be taken soon. Since 2004, the orangutan population has declined by 14 per cent in Sumatra and 10 per cent in Borneo. Some scientists fear they could become extinct in the wild as soon as 2011.

Without drastic changes, orangutans like Kesi won't be born into difficult times - they won't be born at all.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are children's rights activists and co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world. Online: Craig and Marc Kielburger discuss global issues every Monday in the World & Comment section. Take part in the discussion online at


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