Palm oil Kernels in Sumatra

Gita Defoe

Palm oil and orangutans.
Learn about the impact of palm oil on orangutans.
Is sustainable palm oil better?

The Problem with Palm Oil

Palm oil, an ingredient found in many everyday food and cosmetic products, is contributing to the rapid deforestation in Sumatra. Orangutan habitat in Sumatra and Borneo is being cleared at an alarming rate for conversion to oil palm plantations. On Sumatra there is now more than 4 times as much land cultivated with oil palms as there is orangutan habitat remaining.

Over the past few decades, oil palm plantations have rapidly spread across Southeast Asia and the palm oil industry has become a crucial source of income and employment for countries such as Indonesia. However, this development has come at the expense of Indonesia’s tropical rainforests and peatlands, home to countless endangered species and providing crucial ecological services to millions of people.

There is a huge amount of degraded land available for planting oil palms in Sumatra and Borneo, but palm oil companies can make a quick profit when they cut down rainforests and sell the timber, so the relentless deforestation continues.

Paul Hilton

Paul Hilton

Palm Oil in Depth

Palm oil production is having catastrophic environmental and social impacts across Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa. Indonesia is the world’s biggest producer of palm oil, and there are more than 4 million hectares of plantations in Sumatra alone – an area the size of Switzerland.

Much of this development has come at the expense of rainforests, including vast swathes of orangutan habitat. As one of the primary drivers of deforestation in Sumatra, the palm oil industry poses a serious threat to the survival of orangutans, as well as countless other endemic and critically endangered species including the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros and Sumatran elephant, that share the same rainforest habitat. As plantations expand, populations plummet, and incidences of human-wildlife conflict escalate.

The Hard Facts

As the global demand for palm oil has increased, so has the extent of land under oil palm cultivation.
  • Between 1989 and 2000 the area covered by oil palms in Indonesia more than tripled, and the country now has over 6 million hectares of oil palm plantations. There are more than 15 million hectares of oil palm plantations worldwide.
  • Much of this expansion has been at the expense of lowland rainforests – some of the most species-rich areas on earth.
  • Current plans to lift protection from the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra are one of the biggest threats to biodiversity on the planet, threatening the very existence of the critically endangered populations of Sumatran orangutan, rhino, elephant and tiger.
  • Oil palm plantations can have a major impact on global greenhouse gas emissions, especially when they are established on land converted from peat swamp forests, which release huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane when they are cleared.

Avoiding palm oil may not help orangutans

Whilst we appreciate that individuals may wish to distance themselves from the threat the industry poses to orangutans and their habitat, we do not believe that boycotting palm oil is the solution. It is the most productive oil crop in the world, so much more land would need to be sacrificed if companies switched to using an alternative.

For example, it would take up to 10 times as much land to produce the same amount of soybean oil. Also, boycotting palm oil could drive the price down. It would then become more attractive for biofuels and livestock feed, and possibly lead to increased demand, especially in India and China, the biggest importers of palm oil.

In addition, over 4.5 million people in Indonesia currently rely on the palm oil industry as their primary source of income. All agriculture has a footprint, and palm oil is here to stay. What we need to do is ensure that it is cultivated in the least damaging way possible. Oil palms do not need to be grown at the expense of biodiverse forests – we need to demand an end to deforestation for palm oil in order to safeguard orangutans, and the precious rainforests they inhabit.

Responsible palm oil

When the word sustainable is used in relation to palm oil, this is usually shorthand for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil, or CSPO – palm oil that is certified according to a standard devised by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO is a membership organisation which includes companies that produce, trade, use or invest in palm oil, and conservation and social NGOs. SOS is a member of the RSPO, but in common with many other organisations, we believe that the RSPO standard does not go far enough in addressing some of the most serious impacts of the palm oil industry.

As members, we are working to improve the RSPO standard, but until it can be strengthened, we will advocate the production and use of responsible palm oil, which refers to palm oil that is produced according to the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG) Charter. POIG is a collection of NGOs (including SOS) and progressive palm oil producers that have established a detailed set of values that build on, and go beyond, the RSPO standard. The additional requirements stipulate that palm oil operations must be free from deforestation, destruction of peatlands, and human rights abuses. Many big players in the palm oil industry have now made zero-deforestation commitments, including the world’s largest palm oil trader, and Indonesia’s biggest palm oil producer. POIG aims to bridge the gap between responsible palm oil producers and the growing list of palm oil consumer companies which have made ‘No Deforestation’ commitments and are demanding responsibly produced palm oil. It is crucial that companies’ commitments to clean up their supply chains are turned into action, so that a tipping point in demand for responsible palm oil is reached swiftly, driving transformation in the industry.


What can palm oil producers do?

  • Stop converting high conservation value forests and high carbon stock areas, including peatlands, to oil palm plantations
  • Use degraded land for producing palm oil (for example land that has been previously deforested or cultivated and subsequently abandoned)
  • Avoid labour, land and human rights violations
  • Be transparent about their production methods
  • Invest in research and innovation to increase output and efficiency on their plantations, reducing the need for further expansion


What can manufacturers and retailers do?

Companies using palm oil (and its derivatives) in their products and those selling the products should:

  • Source responsibly produced palm oil now
  • Ensure their supply chain is traceable
  • Apply zero-deforestation commitments to third party suppliers, and to global operations – not just in European and North American markets, where the call for responsible palm oil may be the loudest
  • Communicate honestly with customers about their progress on the journey to using only responsible palm oil


What can consumers do?

  • Research which retailers and manufacturers are committed to removing deforestation from their products and support those companies in their journey to responsible palm oil
  • Join social media campaigns to drive the industry in the right direction (they do work!) and pressure governments to support the production of responsible palm oil
  • Support conservation organisations working to break the link between palm oil and deforestation


What can governments do?

The RSPO and POIG represent opportunities for the industry to reduce the environmental costs of palm oil production, but they are voluntary initiatives, and whilst governments continue to allocate plantation concessions within high conservation value forests the industry at large will continue to pose a threat to habitats and biodiversity. Governments in producer countries should:

  • Stop the development of high conservation value forests and high carbon stock areas, including peatlands
  • Redirect future plantation expansion onto degraded land
  • The Indonesian government should reject the new Aceh Spatial Plan which would see large areas of the protected Leuser Ecosystem cleared for oil palm plantations and other development.


Governments in consumer countries should:

  • Make national pledges to source only responsible palm oil
  • Engage with producer country governments to support the move towards responsible production
  • Avoid incentivising the use of palm oil as a biofuel, as this potentially huge new demand could lead to increased deforestation, completely undermining any potential environmental benefits of using biofuels over traditional fossil fuels.
A young Sumatran orangutan in a tree

Andrew Walmsley

The path to transformation

Environmentally-sensitive land use planning, increasing yields on existing plantations, and environmentally and socially responsible investment and purchasing, are all crucial to break the link between palm oil and deforestation, and save the Sumatran orangutan from extinction.

SOS works to secure the future of Sumatran orangutans and their forests. We support frontline conservation programmes and campaign on issues threatening the survival of orangutans in the wild. Our projects include rainforest restoration and developing community-led conservation initiatives which support the protection of the rainforests, empowering local people to become guardians of this precious ecosystem. Through our membership of the RSPO and POIG, and our active involvement in frontline conservation projects in Sumatra and international campaigns, SOS is working to break the link between palm oil and deforestation. This is only possible thanks to our donors and supporters. Please support SOS so that we can continue to fight for Sumatran orangutans and their forests.

About palm oil

Zac Mills

An adult sumatran orangutan

Get SOS email updates

Donate Subscribe