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Page last updated at 10:18 GMT, Monday, 22 February 2010
Orangutan survival and the shopping trolley

Borneo Orangutan

The challenge of saving the orangutan - man's closest relative - from extinction is trickling down to the weekly shop.

Many of the biscuits, margarines, breads, crisps and even bars of soap that consumers pick off supermarket shelves contain an ingredient that is feeding a growth industry that conservationists say is killing the orangutans.

The mystery ingredient in the mix is palm oil - the cheapest source of vegetable oil available - and one that rarely appears on the label of most products.

Palm oil is grown on land that was once home to the vast rainforests of Borneo, and the natural habitat of the orangutan.

I think its really about what consumers can do because the most powerful message that can be sent to companies is from their consumers about what it is they want to buy
Environment Secretary Hilary Benn

The International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates that the population has declined by 50% in recent decades and the Indonesian government admits that 50,000 orangutans have died as a result of de-forestation.

A BBC Panorama investigation into clear-cutting in Indonesian Borneo - the island it shares with Malaysia - found that the thirst for land on which to plant palm plantations is encroaching on areas that the Indonesian government has deemed to be off-limits.


The orangutans, displaced as the trees of old-growth forests are burned and at times killed by workers who see them as a nuisance in the logging process, are not the only victims of the runaway growth in palm oil - scientists say there is a wider environmental price being paid.

Greenpeace has identified the draining of ancient peat lands to make way for palm oil as a global threat, saying it had lead to massive amounts of trapped methane and carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.

As a result, Indonesia is the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind only America and China.

Baby Borneon orangutan
Orangutan means "old man of the forest" in Malay
Largest tree-dwelling mammals

Using GPS technology and satellite imaging, the BBC team pinpointed exact locations where palm oil giant the Duta Palma Group is logging on both high conservation lands and deep peat lands - both are illegal.

Shailendra Yashwant, Greenpeace director for Southeast Asia, said this illegal logging is widespread and includes major suppliers to the UK's food and household product market.

"We want the Indonesian government to immediately announce a moratorium on further deforestation…beginning with peat lands."

Willie Smits, a former advisor to the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry turned environmental campaigner, said of the findings: "This is criminal, this should not take place. It means there is no hope left for the most endangered sub-species of the orang-utan in west Kalamantan."

He said the wider environmental issue of greenhouse gases can no longer be overlooked by both manufacturers and everyday consumers.

"This is not just a matter for Indonesia to decide, this is a matter for the world."


The palm industry - valued at £5bn ($7.7bn) for Indonesia - is the country's third biggest export earner.

Many of the big manufacturers who buy that oil via European wholesalers say that while they are starting to find oil from sustainable sources, they are not yet in a position to trace the origin of all of the oil they use.

Currently, only 3% of the world's palm oil is certified sustainable, meaning it comes from plantations that pass an environmental and social impact test.

Many have joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) scheme set up to promote certification of where palm oil originates.

Others have set ambitious goals to use sustainable oil by 2015 or earlier, but Greenpeace's Shailendra Yashwant said the RSPO amounts to a "greenwash" because those commitments are unenforceable on the ground.

Bulk oil from a variety of plantations - including that of Duta Palma Group that the BBC found to be illegally clear-cutting - is mixed together and shipped around the world and sold on to manufacturers behind everyday products.

Duta Palma declined to comment on the BBC's evidence of illegal deforestation.

Consumer pressure

Hilary Benn, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told Panorama the time is right for consumers to put pressure on manufacturers, demanding to know which of their products contain palm oil and assurances that it comes from a sustainable source.

Products containing palm oil
Many of the sweets and staples in our shopping trolleys contain palm oil

Current labelling laws allow manufacturers to list palm oil as 'vegetable' oil, without singling out the palm oil content.

Many manufacturers, including industry giants Unilever and Proctor and Gamble, say their recipes can change and the amounts and types of oils they use can vary from week to week, making more detailed labels unworkable.

However, Sainsbury's supermarkets had earlier taken the decision to not only single out palm oil on the ingredients lists of their own-brand products, but to state directly that it is from a sustainable source.

Recently Unilever, the UK's largest user of palm oil in products that range from Dove soap to Pot Noodles, Knorr soups and Flora, terminated a large contract with a supplier called Sinar Mas, because of reports it was destroying high conservation value forests.

Unilever has told Panorama that while it may have used oil from Duta Palma in the past, it intends to overcome its supply system problems so that it no longer uses oil from the producer.

Secretary Benn said: "I think it's really about what consumers can do because the most powerful message that can be sent to companies is from their consumers about what it is they want to buy," he told reporter Raphael Rowe, citing the demand for free range eggs in the UK as an example of consumer influence.

Mr Benn said the participation by UK retailers and manufacturers in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is a step towards ensuring that palm oil is traceable and therefore increases the chances that it can be certified sustainable.

Panorama: Dying for a Biscuit, BBC One, Monday, 22 February at 2030GMT.

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