Dispelling the Myths: Palm Oil and the Environmental Lobby
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 Dabout the environmental impact of certain industries.