Palm Oil Article

The Role of the Oil Palm in Kalimantan
Rebecca Cudmore
September 2011 (Research collected May-August 2011)

The large island of Borneo is located in Southeast Asia, and is divided between the countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. Often referred to as a “biological hotspot,” Indonesia contains 50 percent of all known animal species in the world (McLaughlin, 2011). Borneo is home to many endemic species as well, that is species found only on the island and nowhere else. However, Indonesia alone has already lost a disturbing 75 percent of its original natural forest habitat (McLaughlin, 2011). The virgin forest exists today only in the highlands where it is difficult for loggers to access, and along the borders that separate the provinces of Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo).

This loss of primary forest is due to a variety of causes, yet one trumps all and has had the largest impact on the land, the people, and the animals: the oil palm industry. Oil derived from the oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, is used for cooking in packaged foods, and is found in a wide range of cosmetic and hygiene products as well.

The industry has grown rapidly in the last decade. World production of palm oil in 2009-2010 was nearly 45 million tons, compared to the 25 million tons in 2007-2008 (AOCS, 2011). Indonesia is the largest exporter, exporting 87 percent of all palm oil produced in the country. The industry in Indonesia is driven by an increasing demand from the largest consuming nations: India, China, and the European Union (WWFI, 2011). The United States’ demand is very low compared to these other countries. However, consumption has been increasing recently as American food manufacturers are attracted to the lower levels of trans unsaturated fats, when compared to soybean oil. However, although palm oil does not contain the unpopular trans fats, it is very high in saturated fats.

Currently, with help from the $21 billion a year oil palm industry, Indonesia’s economy is the largest in Southeast Asia, and is one of the emerging market economies in the world (G20, 2011). It has become so successful due to the crop’s efficiency and price in comparison to other oil-producing plants grown in the region. Each oil palm tree has a much higher content of “sellable oil” and therefore, each hectare of agricultural land planted with oil palm lends more product and money compared to something like a coconut plantation. Each oil palm tree has an economic life of 20-30 years and during that time can produce roughly 10-15 bunches of palm fruit (from which the oil comes) each year. A high yield plantation will produce seven to eight tons of oil per hectare.

The oil palm industry is also beneficial for Borneo’s struggling domestic economy. It is generating jobs where potentially no other jobs could be made. Locals are employed as harvesters and processors, and some move up to lucrative management positions. However, there are severe problems that can arise from dependence on a single crop to fuel a nation’s economy. It is not a sustainable system for the future of Borneo. If oil palm crops catch an infestation or fungus, or if demand dwindles, Borneo’s economy is instantly disabled. Also, at this point if someone is born in Borneo, they are nearly destined to work in the palm oil business. They have no right to choose what their future career may hold, and cultural diversity is reduced.

Of those local people who do not take part in the palm oil industry, the majority are Dyak (a broad term for the native people of Kalimantan). Some Dyaks refuse to farm oil palm, as it was traditionally harvested only on a local level as a vegetable, and coconut was the main source of oil (WWFI, 2011). Today roughly 90 percent of the oil used in Indonesia is palm. Coconut is no longer in such demand and is a less-profitable, less-efficient industry. Dyaks also traditionally farmed rubber. However, the rise in the palm oil industry has forced more and more farmers to devote their plantation land to the new crop. According to the World Wildlife Fund Indonesia, rubber plantations actually bring in more income and go for a higher price on the international market compared to palm oil. However, there is much less demand for rubber than there is for palm oil. Fewer rubber plantations are necessary and thus, fewer jobs. Broadly, coconut and rubber are farmed by small-scale, local farmers while palm oil farming is done by big companies employing non-Dyak workers.

The majority of these oil palm plantation workers are Javanese and Balinese, who were moved to Kalimantan during the transmigration of the 1980s (WWFI, 2011). Java and Bali became so over-populated that the government moved poor, landless people to the less-occupied island of Kalimantan. The land they were moved to was inadequate for traditional farming and therefore, they were unable to support themselves. Many were looking for work just as the palm oil industry took off in the 1990s, and since then they and their families have stayed in the business, unable to find job security elsewhere.

As the development of oil palm plantations increases, large areas of native rainforest are lost and along with it, the incredible amount of biodiversity that it supports. The endangerment of endemic animals such as the proboscis monkey, the Borneo pygmy elephant, the banteng, the sun bear (a Bornean subspecies), the Borneo rhino, and the Bornean orangutan are of greatest concern.

According to the IUCN Red List, there has been an estimated decline in the Bornean orangutan population by more than 50 percent in the last 60 years. This rate is expected to continue based on how quickly their habitat is disappearing. Because female orangutans give birth just once every seven years to a single offspring, repopulation efforts are slow and uncertain. If the Bornean orangutan is not protected, it will be the first great ape to go extinct in modern human history.

One non-governmental organization that has vowed to put all of its energy into finding a way to save the Bornean orangutan is Orangutan Foundation International (OFI). The organization was established by Dr. Birutė Galdikas in 1989 and focuses on research, education, conservation, and forest protection in order to ensure the survival of the orangutan. In 1998, OFI created the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ) to care for confiscated ex-captive and injured wild orangutans. Currently the OCCQ is rehabilitating 330 orphans who will someday be released into protected rainforest.
All of the employees working at the Care Center are local people, all of whom have chosen this job in conservation over one in the palm industry, and take pride in that decision. Pak Sia, one of the employees who has worked for OFI for 22 years, became interested in the organization through his high school in Kalimantan and after witnessing Dr. Galdikas confiscate an orangutan. He worries that the community outside of the Care Center does not care about nor understand species extinction.

He says, “To them, orangutans are good only for amusement.”

When Pak Sia goes to the market to buy fruit for the Care Center, the sellers do not understand why he would give good, fresh fruit to orangutans. This upsets him because he has chosen orangutan conservation as his life’s work and sincerely believes in it. Most locals do not respect orangutans as they do people. They are very distant from the issue of conservation and it is not something that most can afford to worry about. Pak Sia knows that poor quality fruit is not healthy for the orangutans: “They prefer fresh food… just like us.”

Locals familiar with OFI’s work report orangutans in need of confiscation to the Care Center. They will also go to Dr. Galdikas after receiving an offer from a palm oil company wanting to buy their land.  Big companies tend to take advantage of locals by offering a small amount of money to buy their land for plantation conversion. Locals usually end up selling because of financial stability, even if they do not agree with the palm industry. However, Dr. Galdikas will buy and protect their land herself before the company has the chance to purchase.

Recently, a Dyak tribal elder announced that he would like to sell his family’s 6,400 acre forest in Kalimantan (Orangutan Foundation International, 2011). Palm oil companies and developers have shown interest in buying. It is OFI’s goal to raise $640,000 to purchase and protect the biologically-rich land. The elder has agreed to be patient as OFI fundraises, as he too would rather the forest remain wild than be converted to agricultural land.

Over thirty volunteers choose to come to OFI from all over the world to build bridges in the peat swamps each summer. These bridges allow the caretakers to take the orphan orangutans out to “Jungle School” each day, in which the orphans practice being wild orangutans in the trees. Without these bridges, it would be impossible to travel through the swamps, and thus impossible to rehabilitate the orphans.

“I believe strongly in this work. The time invested is worth it,” one very involved volunteer explains as she begins her third volunteer experience with OFI.

Many of the volunteers have taken one or more of Dr. Galdikas’ primatology classes at Simon Fraser University, where she is a professor when not in Kalimantan. Something about her work and passion moved them enough to travel across the world to volunteer. One volunteer described the experience as “completely re-shaping.” He believes that OFI is doing incredible work, yet also knows that the organization needs more funding to overcome the palm oil industry’s effects on orangutan populations: “We need to buy land. I just don’t know what else can be done at this point.”

Also located in Kalimantan, Nyaru Menteng is an orangutan rehabilitation and reintroduction center run by the Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS). Fighting against the negative effects of the palm oil industry, the center cares for over 600 orphans who have all lost their mothers. BOS believes that public awareness is key to successful conservation, and runs a community education center that is open and free to the public every Sunday. Local school groups and families come to learn about BOS’s work, as well as how the palm oil industry is affecting their land and culture.

As with OFI, without proper funding, Nyaru Menteng is unable to reach its full potential as a reintroduction program, releasing healthy orangutans onto protected land. It costs roughly $1,500 US dollars to rehabilitate each orangutan each year before they are ready for release, and on top of that it costs $100 to buy each acre of rainforest in Kalimantan, plus the cost of paying guards to patrol and protect the land (Nyaru Menteng, 2011). As the palm oil industry continues to soar, an increasing number of orphans are turning up and are in need of care. Neither OFI nor Nyaru Menteng will turn down an orphan, even if they are short on funds. Nyaru Menteng sells merchandise to fundraise and has been the star of two different series on the BBC and Animal Planet to gain awareness and as a result, funding.

Other rehabilitation and reintroduction organizations such as “Kalaweit” focus on the conservation of other highly endangered species in Kalimantan. Kalaweit has been doing gibbon rehabilitation since 1999. In 2003, they also created a Kalimantan-based radio station to increase local awareness of environmental issues in the country. To keep 40,000 listeners tuned in each day the station plays popular music in-between the environmental messages discussed each hour. The average listener is 15-25 years old, indicating a more environmentally-conscious generation than the one before. A remarkable 60 percent of the animals confiscated and rehabilitated by Kalaweit have been rescued after radio listener tip-offs. As with the other rehabilitation organizations, Kalaweit has experienced an increasing inflow of orphaned and injured gibbons since the palm oil industry took off.

One organization based in Kalimantan is working to address the other side of conservation: the local human community. Yayorin is a locally run organization that since 1991, has been actively displaying healthy, sustainable farming practices for local people to learn and adopt themselves. Representatives from nearby villages visit Yayorin and bring back the learned practices to share with the rest of their village.

One of Yayorin’s main accomplishments is a large fish pond that demonstrates to locals how to raise fish for their own consumption and income.  They also teach agroforestry, planting agriculture crops in with forest trees, as a sustainable alternative to the degrading practice of slash and burn, common in the area. Yayorin keeps two cows to display the use of manure as fertilizer, and uses gravel and soil water-filtration systems. In addition to the interactive education, the center has a library for children, a bus that visits local schools, and a lovely guesthouse for overnight visitors. The plan is to also establish a restaurant that serves all of Yayorin’s crops, and can begin to bring in more revenue for their projects. It is the organization’s hope to keep local people out of the palm oil business as much as possible by teaching these new economic avenues and displaying environmentally-healthy lifestyles.

Also operating in Kalimantan, The World Wildlife Foundation Indonesia (WWFI) has been a leader in Bornean conservation efforts since 2001. In 2006, they launched the “Heart of Borneo” project, which set out to protect and conserve 220,000 km2 of rainforest (nearly a third of the island) that spreads across the Brunei, Malaysian, and Indonesian parts of Borneo (WWFI, 2011). Because this area is very biologically rich, WWFI plans to acquire scientific data from the forest where potentially none has been taken before. Local communities are also empowered through this project by organizing their own conservation programs for their village. The Heart of Borneo requires collaboration with the governments of all three countries (Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia) to create a network of protected land and sustainably-managed forest. Currently WWFI is having a very difficult time working with the Indonesian government.

“It is not so easy to make our government take over the project,” the community-development head of WWF Indonesia stated. “Very small efforts coming from the government right now…”

Because the palm oil industry has been so profitable for the country, the government is not keen on the idea of conserving 220,00 km2 of land that holds an extremely high economic value.

Palm oil business will not be abandoning Borneo anytime soon. Therefore, in some areas deemed most appropriate for agriculture, plantations need to be developed in the most sustainable way. In other, more ecologically sensitive areas, the palm business needs to be fiercely fought against.
First of all, the practice of monoculture agriculture needs to transition over to multi-cropping, in which a variety of profitable agriculture crops and trees are planted within the oil palm crops. Multi-cropped plantations help maintain a healthy, more productive land-use system. Willie Smits, of the Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation, led the Samboja Lestari (“Everlasting Forest”) project in which the organization regrew 5,000 acres of deforested land in East Kalimantan using agroforestry practices (Smits, 2009).

Beginning in 2001, the Samboja Lestari land was regrown with 740 different tree species, many yielding a profit for the local community (Smits, 2009). Through each step of the regrowth process the local community benefited and was involved. Families received ownership of plots and planted pineapple, ginger, and a variety of other agricultural crops to keep the soil rich and to provide the community with immediate profit until larger, more economically valuable trees, could be harvested. One of these larger trees was the Arenga sugar palm. This fire-resistant species was planted around the perimeter of the land, as forest fires are a severe threat in Kalimantan. This sugar palm seems to be something of a miracle crop in that it also yields steady income for locals. Sap from the tree needs be tapped twice a day, creating constant work, without needing to harvest any fruit. If done properly, the tapping extends the life of the tree. Sugar palm also produces three times as much energy per hectare per year compared to the oil palm tree, because of the fact that they can be tapped daily (Smits, 2009). It is being looked at seriously as a biofuel candidate, which would create additional economic opportunities for the community. Orangutans and other wildlife were released onto the land and have done well. Bamboo was planted along waterways to filter the water. It sounds like a step in the right direction, an answer perhaps.

Unfortunately, it comes down to one thing: How is the sugar palm going to displace the oil palm? The sugar palm tree produces sugar and potentially biofuel, not oil. These are separate markets. The theoretical framework behind the project is impressive and useful, but it does not seem that sugar palm can counter the oil palm industry. That is, unless the demand for palm oil decreases so much that Indonesia’s economy must rely on a new market: biofuels.

In addition to adopting agroforestry practices, oil palm plantations need to avoid ecologically-sensitive areas, meaning planting plantations on land that has already been deforested, burned, or is old agricultural acreage. Education for children in schools, as well as adults in the community, needs to have a stronger focus on conservation of the natural environment. Locals must have an incentive and personal desire to save the rainforest. Local agriculture, such as that taught at Yayorin, needs to reach a broader audience and must have more of an impact on Indonesia’s economy.

However, it should be understood that above all, the most influential act that everyone can take at this point is to buy up and protect the existing rainforest. It is the most straightforward and effective method to save these rare ecosystems. Less than 50 percent of Borneo’s natural rainforest remains (WWFI, 2011). Any land that is not officially owned is now on sale to those who have the financial ability to take it. Unfortunately, those with the financial ability are not the NGOs like Orangutan Foundation International and the Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation, but rather, the palm oil companies.

The global community must decide whether the remaining rainforest belongs in the hands of the palm oil industry or in those of the native people and conservation organizations. That decision comes down to where we choose to put our money. We can continue to ignore our packaged food labels and purchase products that are made possible by rainforest destruction, or we can donate to organizations whose mission we believe in and thus, work towards preserving the last half of the Bornean rainforest.


Butler, Rhett (2008-2011). The impact of oil palm in Borneo. August 15, 2011. Retrieved from

G20 (2011). Indonesia’s Economy.

McLaughlin, D., Cabarle, B., Newman, K. (2011). Racing the Clock to Save Borneo & Sumatra.  Pulse (WWF), 2, 4-9.

Mistry, Dorab. (2011). American Oil Chemists’ Society. Short and long-term price f   forecasting     for palm and lauric oils. August 10, 2011.

Nyaru Menteng, personal communication, (June 6, 2011).

Orangutan Care Center (2011). Orangutan Foundation International. August 12, 2011.      Retrieved from

Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) , personal communication, (May 26, 2011).

Smits, Willie (TED). (2009, February). How we re-grew a rainforest. Video retrieved from

Tiju, Albertus. (2011). Protecting Borneo’s Fiery Ape. Pulse (WWF), 2, 10-11.

World Wildlife Fund Indonesia (WWFI), personal communication, (June 8, 2011).

1 Response to Palm Oil Article

  1. K says:

    Thank you for such an informative site.I have written the priminister of Borneo in the past but didn’t really have the info I needed to make a good case! I am a student at CCC in your father’s class. He is very proud of you and so am I . I just recently went to Ellensburg to see the chimpanzees that sign.

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