Oil palm, timber industries put Indonesia’s orangutans in peril

According to the report by Aidenvironment, there are 6.22 million hectares (15.37 million acres) of orangutan habitat within corporate oil palm, logging, and industrial tree concessions.

Orangutan_Baby_Indonesia
A baby orangutan clings to its mother at the Tanjung Puting National Park in Indonesia. Image: mammita, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

The vast majority of orangutan habitat in Indonesia is located outside of protected areas. That can be bad news for orangutans living in corporate concessions, where a new report finds many companies lack safeguards and commitments to protect these critically endangered apes.

The report, by Amsterdam-based sustainability consultancy Aidenvironment, found that Indonesia has 14.1 million hectares (34.8 million acres) of forested habitat suitable for orangutans. Only a quarter of that, or 3.46 million hectares (8.55 million acres), falls within the boundaries of protected areas such as national parks, nature reserves, game reserves and protected forests.

Meanwhile, almost double this amount, 6.22 million hectares (15.37 million acres), lies within corporate oil palm, logging, and industrial tree concessions, according to the analysis. This finding comes from overlaying Aidenvironment’s concession data with data on orangutan habitats derived from the orangutan population and habitat viability assessment (PHVA) carried out by the Indonesian government.

Aidenvironment pointed out that just because there’s orangutan habitat in a corporate concession, it doesn’t necessarily mean there are orangutans still living in the concession.

However, based on observations, orangutans are often found within areas with human activities, instead of in primary natural forests with no disturbance, according to Belinda Arunarwati Margono, the Indonesian environment ministry’s director of forest resource monitoring.

The ever-decreasing forest patches they are being confined to as a result of corporate concessions means it is harder for orangutans to survive in these landscapes.

Christopher Wiggs, programme director, Aidenvironment 

“What’s interesting is that they don’t only live in [undisturbed forests]. They live everywhere,” she said at an online press conference. “So orangutans like to be close to us, their distant relatives. They like to be in disturbed areas.”

Aidenvironment noted that if there are orangutans in a concession, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re at risk of being captured and killed.

“However, in general, the ever-decreasing forest patches they are being confined to as a result of corporate concessions means it is harder for orangutans to survive in these landscapes,” Aidenvironment said.

Industrial tree plantations the ‘key stakeholder’

The study’s findings are in line with a 2021 analysis by the U.S.-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which also showed that orangutan habitat in Sumatra and Kalimantan (the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo) covers millions of hectares of oil palm, pulpwood and logging plots.

Orangutan habitat occurs in 898,652 hectares (2.22 million acres) of industrial tree plantations, according to Aidenvironment, while 4.76 million hectares (11.76 million acres) overlap with selective logging concessions.  Oil palm concessions host 563,282 hectares (1.39 million acres).

Industrial tree companies operate with much less transparency and scrutiny than the palm oil sector. And while they cover a smaller area of habitat than selective logging concessions, industrial tree plantations — by the very nature of their operations, which involve clearing vast swaths of forest — are what Aidenviroment calls “the key stakeholder.” It says this means more focus needs to be put into conserving orangutan habitat in industrial tree concessions, where trees are grown and cut to produce paper and textile fibres, as well as for timber and wood chips.

Of the 21 largest oil palm growers in Indonesia, 16 have adopted the so-called NDPE policy, which commits them to zero deforestation, no peatland development, and no exploitation of communities and workers. At the same time, the study found that only three of Indonesia’s 21 largest industrial tree growers have sustainability commitments that are close to palm oil NDPE policies: Sinar Mas, Royal Golden Eagle (RGE) and Marubeni.

Even then, the sustainability commitments of companies like Sinar Mas and RGE still allow the planting of industrial trees, like acacia, on peatlands, albeit non-forested ones, Aidenvironment said.

By contrast, palm oil NDPE policies forbid any development of peat areas, whether still forested or not.

Aidenvironment also pointed out that industrial tree concessions can also be cleared of native vegetation, unlike logging concessions.

Nevertheless, the adoption of sustainability policies among pulpwood producers has contributed to a decline in deforestation within industrial tree concessions.

Deforestation fell by 85 per cent in the 2015-2019 period compared to 2010-2012 inside the 91 concessions supplying wood fibre to Indonesian pulp mills belonging to Sinar Mas, RGE, and Marubeni — all which have made public commitments to end deforestation in their supply chains. That’s according to a 2021 study by Trase, a transparency initiative that maps deforestation in commodities supply chains.

While there’s been some progress on curbing deforestation, clearing still continues in the industrial tree sector. Aidenvironment identified five industrial tree companies that were responsible for 13,000 hectares (32,100 acres) of deforestation in Indonesia in 2020, and four in 2021 that cleared 11,000 hectares (27,181 acres) of forest, peat forest and peat.

Top three concession holders — and deforesters

Aidenvironment highlighted three industrial key concessions with the largest areas of orangutan habitat. They are PT Mayawana Persada in the Mendawak habitat unit of the Kubu Raya landscape in West Kalimantan province; PT Industrial Forest Plantation in the Sungai Murui Hulu habitat unit of the Kahayan-Kapuas landscape in Central Kalimantan; and PT Taiyoung Engreen in the Rungan Timur habitat unit of the Rungan River landscape in Central Kalimantan.

All three concession holders are also among the largest deforesters in the industrial tree sector.

Of the three landscapes, the Rungan River has the best additional data and evidence of a viable orangutan population, with between 2,220 and 3,275 orangutans identified in the area.

The large number of individuals in the landscape means the Rungan River is home to one of the biggest unprotected populations of orangutans in the world.

Of the 147,357 hectares (364,127 acres) of forested orangutan habitat in the Rungan River, 41,609 hectares (102,818 acres), or 28 per cent, are in the industrial tree concession of PT Taiyoung Engreen. The company is a joint venture between South Korea’s Taiyoung Global Co. Ltd. (which holds a 40 per cent stake) and the Indonesian company Jhonlin (30 per cent).

According to Aidenvironment’s analysis, deforestation has been ongoing in Taiyoung’s concession for years, with 3,510 hectares (8,673 acres) of deforestation detected since 2018, a quarter of it in 2021 alone.

Aidenvironment said the deforestation is almost entirely inside orangutan habitat.

More areas of orangutan habitat are likely to be cleared in the same concession, Aidenvironment said.

This is because neither Jhonlin nor Taiyoung have strong sustainability policies. Jhonlin recently moved into Indonesia’s domestic biofuel sector, which has weaker sustainability standards than the NDPE market.

Aidenvironment also noted that Jhonlin has a track record of clearing rainforests and peatlands as well as being embroiled in numerous disputes with local communities over land, labour, and human rights violations.

Kahayan

The Kahayan-Kapuas landscape, also in Central Kalimantan, has a larger orangutan habitat than the Rungan River, spanning almost 400,000 hectares (988,400 acres), but likely has fewer orangutans, with a population estimated at between 1,065 and 2,300 individuals. Most of the forests in the landscape are peat swamp.

PT Industrial Forest Plantation is the key concession holder in the landscape.

Some 52,125 hectares (128,803 acres), or more than half of its concession, is forested orangutan habitat. The concession is also the scene of ongoing deforestation, with 9,673 hectares (23,902 acres) of forests having been cleared since 2018, largely in a strip running through the centre of the concession.

It’s not known how many orangutans live in IFP’s concession, but a 2014 assessment identified the existence of orangutans and other protected flora and fauna inside the concession boundaries.

The Aidenvironment report also identified other industrial tree concessions operating inside the orangutan habitat in the Kahayan-Kapuas landscape, including PT Nusantara Fiber, PT Kalteng Green Resources, PT Bumi Hijau Prima, PT Bumi Agro Prima, PT Ramang Agro Lestari, and PT Hutan Produksi Lestari.

Despite the landscape having a significant orangutan habitat with many industrial tree concessions operating within it, there are no known conservation organisations working in the landscape. Surveys are badly needed in the landscape to develop relevant conservation interventions, according to Aidenvironment, which identified two areas in the landscape suitable for conservation.

The first one is a tract of forest that overlaps with the concessions held by Kalteng Green Resources and Industrial Forest Plantation, both of which contain most of the remaining forest within the landscape. Aidenvironment said the 23,000 hectares (56,800 acres) in these concessions, adjacent to each other, could be used to create a central undisturbed block for orangutan conservation.

“The central block of forest is still in good condition and is not intersected by roads or rivers, allowing unfettered movement for orangutans,” Aidenvironment said in the report.

The second proposed area is around 7,500 hectares (18,500 acres) of forested orangutan habitat that’s surrounded by two roads, a river to the north, and large amounts of cleared land within Industrial Forest Plantation’s concession to the southeast.

Kubu Raya

The third landscape highlighted in the report is the Kubu Raya landscape in West Kalimantan province, which covers an area of 284,481 hectares (702,968 acres), where at least 1,348 orangutans live.

Most of the landscape here is forested orangutan habitat, estimated by Aidenvironment to be at 223,014 hectares (551,080 acres). This is more than double the amount of forested habitat in Gunung Palung National Park, located just south of the Kubu Raya landscape.

While civil society organisations have made high-profile efforts to conserve orangutan habitat within the park itself, the Kubu Raya landscape has received little attention, with just one conservation area, the 20,000-hectare (49,400-acre) Mendawak Protected Forest, lying within it.

But Mendawak has been heavily impacted by illegal logging, and there’s also conflicting information about whether the area is home to any orangutans.

According to Aidenvironment, field surveys conducted by WWF Indonesia in 2020 found indications that orangutans live in the area. “[However] from Aidenvironment’s own engagement in the area, we believe that there are no orangutans within the Mendawak Protected Forest,” Aidenvironment said.

The rest of the landscape is covered almost entirely by eight corporate concessions.

The one with the most remaining forested orangutan habitat is the 137,000-hectare (338,500-acre) concession held by PT Mayawana Persada, which contains 68,776 hectares (169,949 acres) of forested orangutan habitat.

According to Aidenvironment’s analysis, the orangutan habitat inside Mayawana Persada’s concession is under threat as there’s little to no information regarding conservation activity by the company.

“Specifically, it is unclear how many orangutans are present within PT Mayawana Persada, how much forest is designated for clearing and for protection, or whether the company has policies in place to protect orangutans,” Aidenvironment said.

The latest Indonesian government-instigated audit of the company in 2021, for instance, makes no mention of orangutans or company policies pertaining to orangutans.

Mayawana Persada is actively clearing forests to make way for industrial plantations, with 8,852 hectares (21,873 acres) of forest cleared between 2018 and 2021, Aidenvironment said. A small part of this was caused by third-party bauxite mining.

Most of the deforestation occurred last year, with 5,250 hectares (13,000 acres) of forest loss, indicating an increase in activity, Aidenvironment said.

“This demonstrates how under threat orangutans are in this area, and why PT Mayawana Persada should stop clearing immediately and conduct orangutan surveys of their concession,” Aidenvironment said. “Based on current available evidence the orangutan habitat, and orangutans it may contain, within this concession appear to be under significant threat.”

Mayawana Persada has previously denied the allegation that it has been clearing orangutan habitat within its concession.

“There’s no deforestation activity in orangutan’s habitat by PT Mayawana Persada,” the company told Mongabay in an email dated May 2021. “This can be seen from the company’s working map and the company’s activities on the ground, which have taken into account the results of studies on orangutan and high conservation values areas.”

Mayawana Persada said the studies were done by a consultancy called Ecology and Conservation Center for Tropical Studies (Ecositrop).

“The studies were to minimise the impact of the industrial forest plantation on the orangutan population in PT Mayawana Persada’s concession,” the company said.

However, satellite and drone analysis by Aidenvironment shows high conservation value (HCV) areas have been cleared.

To preserve the remaining orangutan habitat within the Mendawak Protected Forest, Aidenvironment said there are two areas where conservation should be prioritised. The first one is a continuous stretch of forest between the concession of PT Daya Tani Kalbar and the protected forest that passes through three other concessions, held by Sumitomo Forestry. This area covers approximately 36,000 hectares (89,000 acres).

The second one is a 38,000-hectare (93,900-acre) forest that stretches from the coastal areas on the outskirts of Mayawana Persada until the thin strip of forest that lies between Mayawana Persada’s and Daya Tani Kalbar’s concessions.

Connecting fragmented habitats

When asked whether the government’s forest protection policies, particularly a permanent moratorium on the clearance of primary forests and peatlands, could protect orangutan habitat as well, the environment ministry’s Belinda said the moratorium wasn’t specifically designed to conserve orangutan habitat.

However, if a forest area has protected status or is zoned for conservation, it is automatically protected under the moratorium policy, even though the area might no longer be forested, she added.

“So we design so that at least primary forests and peatlands are protected, while the function of conservation and protection is maintained [through the moratorium policy],” Belinda said.

There are other policies that could protect forests and subsequently orangutan habitat as well, such as the social forestry program, she added. This program aims to reallocate state forest to local communities and give them the legal standing to manage the forests.

Some of the community titles under the social forestry programs are designed with forest conservation in mind, based on the idea that forests that are managed by communities will be better protected and more sustainably managed.

“So what’s important is to connect the network [of orangutan habitat] and to minimise fragmented forest, but not directly through the forest moratorium policy itself,” Belinda said.

The EIA said it’s not enough for the moratorium policy to only protect primary forests and peatlands as orangutans also live in secondary forests and forest fragments. A 2021 study, drawing on several decades of ground and aerial surveys in Borneo, found that some orangutans are adapting to the presence of oil palm plantations.

But this doesn’t mean that orangutans can cope well with massive alterations to their habitat and don’t need forest to survive, the researchers of the study said. They found that orangutans are able to survive in and among plantations only when they have access to small fragments of standing forest nearby.

Conservation groups like the EIA have called on the Indonesian government to place orangutan habitat, no matter where they are, under formal protection by including them within the permanent forest moratorium area.

The need for a more robust strategy in protecting orangutan habitat has grown even more urgent now as recent developments in Indonesian policies — such as the recent expiration of a moratorium on new oil palm concessions and the deregulation of environmental protections ushered in by controversial legislation passed in 2020 — put orangutan habitat at greater risks, according to the EIA.

“The confluence of threats facing orangutans is nothing short of a crisis,” Taylor Tench, EIA policy analyst, said in a press release.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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