More Malaysian Palm Oil Propaganda?

“Environmental activists are sometimes ridiculous in the claims they make”                          — Isabelle Lackman



Isabelle Lackman is a primatologist and co-founder of Hutan, a non-governmental organisation that aims to preserve wildlife in Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. Today there are only an estimated 60,000 orang-utans left.

This was posted on Facebook (from a “news” story at, and featured primatologist who has lived in Malaysia for 16 years, who was interviewed for three hours and then that interview severely summarized.

The palm-oil industry is often vilified for the plight of orang-utans – but mud-slinging won’t save them, argues primatologist Isabelle Lackman

Today orang-utans are found only in Borneo and Sumatra, where they are threatened by palm oil plantations. What is the conflict?
There’s a clash over land. Orang-utans like lowlands, but this is where agriculture is most productive. Orang-utans also pull up oil palm trees and eat them, because the flesh is very sweet – they can be a real pest for the plantations.

Is banning the palm oil industry a solution, as some activist groups have advocated?
No. Palm oil is a huge source of revenue. You can’t expect the country to give up its main source of income. Anyway, the crop is not evil: it’s the way it is produced. The anti-palm-oil campaign raised awareness, but now it’s time to be more realistic and look at practical solutions.

Is there any truth to accusations of brutality levelled at the industry?
Environmental activists are sometimes ridiculous in the claims they make. The anti-palm-oil lobby makes horrible claims that are obviously not true, like that the whole palm oil industry is evil and all the plantations are slaughtering baby orang-utans. That happens, but it is not everyone. But because it’s very emotional, and there are lots of gory pictures, it allows activists to use facts that are not verified.

Of course, it goes both ways. Plantation owners will say they don’t encroach on protected areas. This is true, but more than half of all orang-utans live outside protected areas. Plantation owners also say orang-utans can survive in plantations on the fruit of the oil palm. This is not true. They can go in and eat it, but no animal can live only on oil palm. It would be like you living only on peanuts.

Are there efforts to work with the industry?
The industry has evolved. Some companies have now joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and some are starting to be certified as sustainable. But this is expensive, and because palm oil has been demonised, people often want to boycott it entirely – which penalises those companies that do try to do good.

What can people outside Malaysia do to help the orang-utans?
People can learn about sustainable palm oil and the RSPO, and even become members. At the moment there is overwhelming membership from the palm oil industry, and very few NGOs.

Also, we have launched a £1 million appeal with the World Land Trust to fund the purchase of a strategically placed corridor of land linking two protected areas. The orang-utans use it, and unless it is protected it will go to a palm oil company. That’s what we want to avoid.

Are you optimistic about the orang-utans’ survival?
The outlook is completely site-dependent. Some areas in Borneo are deforested on a very large scale; others are better protected. Overall, I would say that things are slowly getting better, mostly due to relatively good government support. In some places, the government has even increased the size of the protected areas. That’s not enough, but they are moving in a good direction.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Orang-utan alliance”


Isabelle Lackman is a primatologist and co-founder of Hutan, a non-governmental organisation that aims to preserve wildlife in Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. Today there are only an estimated 60,000 orang-utans left.

All credit to this source:

Naturally I took offense and fired off this email after finding her email address on the net.

Dr. Lackman,

Many of us in the environmental community have read your above-referenced piece asking us to forgive palm oil.  Frankly, we found it to be full of inaccuracies, rationalizations and falsities.

May we ask who is sponsoring this greenwash?  Is it the Malaysian Palm Oil Council.  I mean seriously.

There is NO SUCH thing as sustainable palm oil at this point.

Surprisingly, she not only received the email but responded in a very quick fashion.  I’m still not sure if I agree with her, but credit her for confronting the news-reporting and problems with the story.

Thank you for letting me know your opinion.

The point that I was trying to get through to the New Scientist journalist is that in East Sabah a large number of the remaining wild orang-utans live in small fragments of protected areas and that the long term survival of these isolated orang-utan populations very much depends on the possibility to reconnect these protected areas.  What lies in between these fragments of protected forest is private land, legally owned by oil palm companies, sometimes still under forest cover. The government has no right to take these forested lands away from their owners. They would be too expensive to buy. And no amount of boycott or international anti-palm oil campaign is going to convince these companies to give away their land for orang-utan conservation, quite on the contrary actually. If your goal was to secure the remaining 30,000ha of unprotected forests in the Lower Kinabatangan, what would you do?

I have lived and worked in Malaysia for the past 16 years and I could also tell you a striking amount of oil palm horror stories. I could make you sick just by telling you of my personal experience with the malaysian oil palm propaganda bodies. But this would not be enough to save Sabah’s orang-utans. Raising international awareness is an excellent thing to do, but awareness alone is not enough. We obviously also need to implement practical solutions on the ground to ensure the conservation of crucial areas of orang-utan habitat, which means, in the case of Sabah, to work with private land owners. It is not a matter of whether we approve of it or not, it is a necessity. And RSPO has been a good negotiating platform so far, with some of the companies present in the Kinabatangan for instance willing to make “sacrifices” for RSPO certification. I personally believe that the term “sustainable palm oil” is an absurd and contradictory concept, but I really don’t care as long as RSPO works in making oil palm companies do what they would never do otherwise.

The New Scientist article is all about Sabah, where the situation is very different from Indonesia. The journalist, who summarised our 3-hour discussion in a few sensationalised lines, probably did not stress that point enough.

Very best wishes,


So take it for what it’s worth.

UPDATED: 6/24/2013: (PAID ADVERTISEMENT) How is Palm Oil like the Battle of Thermopylae?

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