Shadows of the Oil Palm - Sumatra and the Money Tree

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More than half of the natural rainforest of Indonesia's western island of Sumatra has been destroyed for palm oil and paper pulp production since 1990. The negative impact of this industry is easily apparent in nearly every corner of the island. Human rights violations, deforestation, loss of water sources, global warming, increased poaching, and various species becoming critically endangered, some near extinction, are all components of the large and complicated conflict that palm oil production continues to fuel.

Action must take place before more or all is lost. What can be done? What is being done? How can we help? In February 2017 I traveled to Sumatra in search of answers. Alongside staff and volunteers of the North Sumatran conservation NGO known as the Orangutan Information Centre I was able to photograph and work alongside the people and wildlife directly affected by the palm oil industry. One of the many reasons I joined this trip was to help purchase a portion of untouched and unprotected land of what is now the Sumatran Wildlife Sanctuary, one of several conservation land sites managed by OIC.

This collection of images covers a myriad of problems Sumatra faces as well as what is being done to help turn the tide. Visit the News page for updates on upcoming fundraisers where I share my photographs and stories from this trip as a platform to spread awareness and raise funds for the endless conservation efforts in place.

The Gunung Leuser National Park located in North Sumatra and Aceh provinces of Sumatra and is part of a World Heritage Site. This park protects some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world and is home to the largest animal sanctuary of Sumatran orangutan, located near the village of Bukit Lawang. The lush jungles of the Leuser cover the Barisan mountain range and is arguably one of the last remaining strongholds of true wild rainforests around the globe. Sumatra houses several national parks, all of which are threatened by human population expansion and the growing force of palm oil production.

Did you know that Sumatra is the only place on Earth where Elephants, Orangutan, Rhino, and Tiger exist together? Yep. Go ahead and throw “The Jungle Book” into that pile of childhood books that straight up lied to you. Don’t throw it away, though. Still a cool story, but if they wanted an ape they should have just used a gibbon, the only ape actually found in India. Anyways, where were we?

Sadly, all four of these iconic creatures have fallen onto the list of critically endangered species, with the rhino, and tiger dangerously close to extinction, followed by elephants and orangutan. As more and more forest is lost, so too are their homes, and with the expansion of things like oil palm plantations and hydro dams, more and more access roads weave their way deeper into the jungles, providing easier access in and out of the rainforest for humans, sometimes in areas so remote it was once impossible for them to reach. This in turn leads to more deforestation, hunting, and trafficking of wildlife. Increased flooding has also become increasingly worse as more forest ground is converted into other uses.

Mile after mile, hour after hour, it’s easy to see how much the landscape of Sumatra is changing. Palm oil is taking over, sometimes as far as the eye can see. The rate of deforestation is so dramatic that some estimates have given places like the Gunung Lesuer another 20 years before it’s completely gone, and with it’s loss, the loss of all living things who depend on it. That is of course, if action does not happen today, and all the days to follow.

The West African Oil Palm is one of the fastest growing oil crops known to man, with trees mature after just 3 years, producing ready to harvest fruit bunches every 10-15 days. The oil is capable of being used for a wide range of products; bio-fuel, beverages, processed foods, cleaning detergents, cosmetic and hygienic products. It’s no wonder palm oil has become as popular and widespread as it has.

Lack of education and job opportunity in remote areas, specifically where palm plantations are more frequently seen, often times leaves the people who live here with few options. The need to keep a roof over their heads, put food on the table, and put their children through school leaves them working in the fields to collect the palm fruits grown in the canopies of the oil palms, which can grow up to 20-30 meters high.

Continuing the plethora of problems locals face in more remote areas of Sumatra is that land grabs from both large corporations and smaller, private businesses become more frequent, illegally or otherwise. In some cases families sign contracts giving ownership of their land over to oil palm companies without fully understanding what they are signing. Contracts can be confusing, sometimes even written in other languages, with the promise of short term pay offs, but long term negative impacts on both the families and their land. These families are often left working in the plantations grown on the land they once owned for very little pay.

As it is not socially acceptable for women to work in oil palm plantations doing the same jobs as men, they make their wages performing other tasks. Some collect individual oil palm fruits that become dislodged during harvest while others perform the more hazardous task of spraying chemicals on what little undergrowth vegetation is found on the plantation floors. These workers do so without being provided with and unable to afford respiratory protection, sometimes falling ill due to chemical inhalation. Cattle farmers near plantations are allowed to let their cows graze the ground vegetation as another method of getting rid of unwanted plants in exchange for small payment.

Higher wages can be earned by folks collecting the already-harvested oil palm fruit and transferring them into trucks, which are owned by the production companies. Regulations state that a truck should not exceed 2.5 tons, but it is common for these vehicles to be filled as much as possible, weighing anywhere between 8-10 tons. Over-filled trucks are the by-product of low wages made by the kilo, not the hour, and lack of enforcement. All the roads outside of major cities are in terrible shape because of the constant traffic and weight from these trucks, and I often lost count of how many I would see in passing while driving throughout Sumatra. It was not uncommon to think they were one sharp turn away from spilling the seemingly overflowing cargo. On March 28th, 2015, a truck carrying roughly 30 children aged between 12-18 tipped over, killed 17 of the kids on board and 5 others in the accident. Fatal accidents like this are not uncommon because of road conditions, and with no public transportation available in rural areas, many hitch rides to and from schools on trucks and other vehicles.

The West African Oil Palm requires a lot of water to thrive, with each tree soaking up as much as 20-40 gallons per day. Considering plantations hold 50 trees per acre, and large scale plantations covering roughly 120,000 acres, water loss becomes a major concern. Small villages in and around plantations are losing their well water and being forced to source water elsewhere, often having to purchase it from other larger towns with money they can’t really spare, and requiring transportation they may or may not have.

I visited the owners of a rice farm just outside the buffer zone of the Leuser ecosystem near Bukit Lawang after a day in the jungle. Darma explained that even though palm oil was becoming more popular, he knows how damaging it is to the land and understands the numerous threats it causes. When I asked how rice sales compared to palm oil he was happy to report that prices in rice have gone up a bit and he is still able to make a living with his farm, but suddenly went quiet. He pointed to the distance, explaining how palm oil plantations are now on the border of his rice paddies. He worries about the future of his farm, the water his crop requires, and the future of his children.

An unexpected experience during my trip brought me to the site of an illegal palm oil plantation that had encroached the Gunung Leuser National Park. OIC discovered this site about 4 years prior to my visit in Sumatra and had been requesting permission to cut it down ever since. Fortunately for me, their requests were finally approved and I joined them for a day to document part of the project.

The first image shows a clear line between the oil palms and the natural rainforest. The buzz of chainsaws echoed through the hills as I viewed the landscape from above before hiking through the plantation. Elephant prints were spotted within the plantation, a harsh reminder of the habitat loss, creating more frequent human-wildlife conflict. Just after leaving Sumatra I received word from OIC of two adult elephants found in a plantation poisoned to death, a common practice in recent years. Plantation owners do not want "pests” like orangutan and elephants eating their crops, so they employ various tactics to reduce wildlife activity within their fields. Tiger attacks have also become more frequent over the last decade due to decrease in their habitat, and in turn, tiger deaths have also become more common.

Watching the determination of the crew as they went tree to tree was invigorating. It was easy to see how proud they were to remove these oil palms, knowing the gravity of their mission, spearheading the beginning stages of regrowing the rainforest. Pictured last is the OIC founder, Panut Hadisiswoyo, standing amongst the cut oil palms as he explained how these would help fertilize the land and prepare it for permaculture reforestation from various endemic species OIC grows in their nurseries.

OIC has been pioneering forest restoration programs on degraded lands in the Leuser Ecosystem since 2008. Because of how damaging the West African Oil Palm is to the land, many believed bringing any kind of plant life back to the soil would not be possible. OIC has proved this belief wrong and inspired hope in many around the island. With several restoration sites in place, such as the Cinta Raja site pictured above, OIC staff prepare saplings of 97 indigenous tree species in their nursery, successfully growing thriving forests and expanding the Leuser ecosystem. With camera traps in place, OIC has documented a return of wildlife activity to lands once covered in unsustainable, dangerous oil palm territory. Footage of various birds and small mammals have been recorded, as well as images of critically endangered and iconic animals like the elephants, orangutans who so desperately need help.

While reforestation programs are incredibly important, protecting existing natural habitats is imperative to the Gunung Leuser’s continued survival and the wildlife that require it’s sanctuary. During a hike to a sanctuary site ran by OIC, Panut points out a new oil palm plantation right on the edge of the Gunung Leuser buffer zone. This plantation has expanded since these images were taken, and more forest has been encroached.

Once we reached a good vantage point of the sanctuary site, OIC staff members performed aerial surveillance of the land to see if any encroachment had occurred illegally. Our mission was cut short after the drone became the target of a hawk protecting it’s nest; a good sign that life was flourishing here. On previous hikes in the jungles, the sound of birds was extremely rare.

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In addition to protecting this incredible ecosystem, movements to purchase more natural rainforest land along the buffer zone of the Gunung Leuser have slowly taken place, expanding the natural habitat for all forms of wildlife who call this kingdom their home. One example of this approach is the Sumatran Wildlife Sanctuary, seen above. The SWS is one of many programs under OIC’s watch, and has purchased three separate sites along the buffer zone of the Leuser, covering a total of roughly twenty acres of pristine, natural rainforest.

Minimizing human-wildlife conflict is one of the goals of expanding and protecting the buffer zone, but with more and more oil palm plantations popping up right on the edge of the Leuser and other areas, legally or otherwise, the conflict continues in what can often feel like a hopeless war.

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One of the most popular practices of deforestation is known as “slash and burn.” This process involves cutting or plowing as much of the living forest down as possible, burning what remains to clear the land of endemic species, and opening the door to monoculture. Fires in these types of forests, especially peat forests, release an incredible amount of carbon into the atmosphere, greatly contributing to global warming effects. Apart from the loss of vegetation, animal lives are also lost in these fires in their attempts to flee from their burning homes. Many species simply are not fast enough to escape, and those that are become displaced, and survive with injuries and/or trauma from the event. I took image above during the long drive back to the city after spending the day planting trees in a reforestation site. It was an immediate, depressing reminder of the daily battles. I’ve come to learn that in conservation, every small victory is often met with massive defeat around every corner - all the more reason to keep fighting and pushing to educate and inspire others to help build change and hope before it is too late.

With corrupt government officials, lack of employment opportunity, and extremely high demand for palm oil, this conflict persists in Sumatra, Borneo, and Malaysian-Borneo every single day around the world. Palm oil production is not exclusive to Indonesia and Malaysia as it occurs in countries along the equatorial belt where the West African Oil Palm can flourish. Countries in Central Africa, Central America, North America, South America, and Southeast Asia are all home to the blight of palm oil production, all suffering in both similar and unique ways.

Unsurprisingly, much has changed in Sumatra since my visit. A new species of orangutan was identified in North Sumatra - the Tapanuli orangutan, with a population no greater than 800, making this species the smallest and most critically endangered group of great apes to date. With plans of a hydroelectric dam to be built in their habitat, the situation is dire. More deforestation, more habitat loss, more palm plantations, more death. I watch and read news from Sumatra in the comfort of my Chicago home, growing increasingly concerned for the future generations of great apes - human and orangutan alike. What will their lives look like five, ten, fifty years from now? Will they have a future at all?

I left Sumatra with many questions answered, but even more questions born. I left feeling both defeated and inspired, contemplating what it must be like to have to face this life on a daily basis. I left knowing I had to share these stories to give voice to those who have none, to inspire others to help organizations like OIC continue to do the work that is required day and night. I left knowing I would one day go back.

Plans to return to Sumatra and join forces with OIC once again are in the works for early 2020. A long, hard road is ahead, and I cannot succeed alone. Creating a short documentary film is the ultimate goal of this trip, which will require a devoted team and funding. I’ll be pouring my heart, soul, and money into this project but I need help. If you’re interested in helping me or OIC in any way, contact me - I’d love to hear from you! You can also donate directly to OIC here.