Nothing is more likely to pull at the heartstrings of audiences brought up on David Attenborough’s natural history programmes than the sight of great apes, such as the orangutan, being jettisoned from the tropical rainforest and left to an uncertain fate.
Wildlife programmes on the BBC and other mainstream broadcasting channels are among the most popular programmes for family viewing in the UK. This popularity helps explain the bulging coffers of wildlife causes, charities and green lobby groups.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is now the world’s largest conservation organisation with over five million supporters and an annual global budget of close on £325m; in Britain alone its annual income is now over £46 million. Meanwhile, in the UK, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds boasts well over one million members and an annual income of around £122 million.
Given this strong and enduring commitment to wildlife in so many Western countries, it is perhaps not surprising that the ‘green’ lobby has sought to capitalise on people’s emotions to help fund their activities. Among the most emotive messages promoted by them is the fate of the orangutan in the rainforests of Malaysia.
Orangutans trigger a particular chord with Western audiences. Their numbers have dropped over time with an estimated wild population of between 52,000 to 69,000 despite considerable efforts being made to conserve the remaining Sumatran and Bornean subspecies. Yet it is worth emphasising that the environmentalists’ focus on the orangutan comes from a larger ideological opposition to economic development, notably the expansion of plantation agriculture, anywhere in the world.
If one reads the studies and pronouncements made by green groups like Friends of the Earth, WWF and Greenpeace, one would conclude that commercial interests, notably the palm oil industry in Malaysia, were the principal cause of their declining numbers.
Green groups are quick to claim that commercial interests are hell bent on slashing down rainforest and destroying habitat for a rich and diverse variety of wildlife in the Far East.
Indeed, the green lobby claims that capitalism is responsible for a widespread collapse in habitat, which in turn jeopardises the future survival of a raft of endangered species – the orangutan being the focus of this perceived trend in the Far East. This is well illustrated, for example, by the Oil for Ape Scandal report and campaign that was promoted by Friends of the Earth, which argued that palm oil cultivation would lead to the imminent extinction of the orangutan.
Yet, under closer examination, many of these cases turn out to be unfounded and sometimes gross distortions of the truth. This paper assesses the impact of the palm
oil industry on wildlife, with a focus on Malaysia and the orangutan. As well as dispelling many myths about the subject in its own right, this paper may also be a useful
‘case study’ in assessing the green movement’s claims about the environmental impact of certain industries.
Palm oil in Malaysia
Almost three quarters of the total land area in Malaysia is under tree cover (73.7%), and of this total 56% is natural forest. Out of this abundance of forested area – totalling
18.25 million hectares – almost four fifths (79.6%) is given over to permanent reserved forest, national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. That’s 14.52 million.....
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