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Palm Oil, Orangutans, and the Effects of Globalization

Modern business requires an awareness of our connected planet.  This extends to humans, animals, and the environment.  Palm oil shows the effects of globalization and requires us to examine our process of business, foreign relations, and conversationalism

Palm oil, a common ingredient in consumer products, affects our globe in a powerful way.  Four Paws International, an animal welfare organization, focuses on the welfare of orangutans, but the ripple effect extends to an entire ecosystem, an indigenous population in Southeast Asia, and to the average consumer in the Western world.  Four Paws wants the public to understand the important issue of orangutan welfare in relation to palm oil because not only will this knowledge help with saving the lives of an endangered species, but also establish a template that can help society grapple with the effects of animal welfare, climate change, and a moral economy.

The orangutan, a majestic and calm primate, thrives in the rainforests of Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia.  The deforestation of their natural habitat is leading to a smaller orangutan population.  Four Paws does not care about the vitality of this species solely because of their similarity to humans and aesthetic appeal; a thriving orangutan means a thriving ecosystem.  The Pongo Foundation, an organization specifically dedicated to orangutan welfare, illustrates how orangutans function as an umbrella species. “If orangutans are present at normal densities, then the area is likely also to contain at least five other species of primates, at least five species of hornbills, at least 50 different fruit-tree species, and 15 liana species,” according to the Pongo website.  Protecting these great apes allows the rest of the ecosystem to flourish.

Besides impacting a variety of species, the palm oil industry negatively affects the indigenous people of Malaysia and Indonesia.  Farmers, in an effort to get away from the usual agricultural mainstays like rubber, rice, and fruit, turn to producing palm oil.  They create a plantation, which requires deforestation of the orangutans’ habitat, and cultivate their crop throughout the year.  Palm oil actually helped the indigenous people during the Asian Financial Crisis, which resulted in Malaysia and Indonesia accounting for ninety percent of global palm oil production.  The fact that the local population of these areas thrives off of palm oil is not up for debate; however many groups find the unethical treatment of the local population by large companies and government wrong.  Often, these farmers form a plantation and systematically become in debt to the large corporations that rule the palm oil industry.  It makes sense that these people want to deforest the land in which orangutans inhabit because they need to make a sustainable living wage.

It may seem surprising, but even our dietary habits impact the lives of the entire Southeast Asian ecosystem.  The European meat industry has also become a huge stakeholder in palm oil because of its high volume palm oil use.  Many farmers use palm kernel meal, made from palm oil,  in order to feed livestock.  Besides creating a larger demand for the deforestation of orangutans’ natural environment for palm oil production, our continued desire for meat has devastating effects on the environment.  A recent study showed that thirty percent of the greenhouse gases emitted by Argentina were attributed to cows in 2013.   Completely getting rid of meat in the average person’s diet is difficult and idealistic to say the least, but the global impact points to a strong need for reduction of meat intake.

Four Paws recognizes that the solution to the problem is not as simple as saying, “Leave the orangutans alone and never touch their habitat.”  This approach is far too idealistic and displays an ignorance to the other parties involved in cultivating this product.  Animal welfare is crucial, but it also turns out that understanding this problem will shed light onto other industries and walks of life that could benefit from a holistic approach to infrastructural improvement.  The key lies in ethical negotiation.  There’s a proper way to ensure that various regions of the world can enjoy the benefits of palm oil in a way that cooperates with the lifestyles of the Malaysian and Indonesian population, both human and animal.  One person alone cannot solve this issue.  However, one person can make a difference, no matter how big or small his or her contribution.  Here are some links to resources you may find helpful, including the Four Paws #InternationalOrangutanDay infographic and a list of palm oil alternatives from the Borneo Orangutan SurvivalAustralia.

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