The Palm Oil Free Stamp of Approval Saving the Orangutan

9 mins

Palm oil has long been associated with deforestation and the endangered orangutan. Now, for the first time a certification scheme has launched allowing companies to show that their products are palm oil free. By Anthea Ayache

Go onto the brand new International Palm Oil Free Certification Accreditation Programme (POFCAP)’s website and you’ll see the cheeky face of a baby orangutan smiling back at you from every page. Her name is Jabrick, a one year old primate who was stolen by local villagers when her mother was killed in Indonesia’s Kalimantan province in 2015. While the exact reason for her mother’s death remains unclear, the majority of illegal pet orangutans are a by-product of forest clearance, human animal conflict and the black-market pet trade where baby orangutans such as Jabrick can fetch prices of up to $50,000.

In her new and highly unnatural home, Jabrick was fed only on a diet of condensed milk by a surrogate ‘family’, with no experience or required knowledge on how to raise a baby ape. Lacking the essential minerals from her mother’s milk, Jabrick quickly became malnourished and weak. Her owners, not equipped to deal with a sick baby primate, gave her up into the care of professionals at a local non-governmental organisation in the area, The Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP).

Jabrick spent her first few months recovering in the rehabilitation centre and learning to independently climb and swing. While her weakened state meant she was gentle and passive, out of all the forest school orangutans at the centre, she was the youngest who could climb the highest.

Despite strides forward in her development however, Jabrick was suffering from a weakened immune system and she soon fell ill, catching malaria in November that year. With the help of 24-hour care from the COP Borneo staff, Jabrick who had been fighting since her little life began, recovered, and was soon climbing trees once more. One month later however, she became ill again. Despite further around the clock care, baby Jabrick was unable to fight back. In January, 2015 she sadly passed away. The official cause of death was influenza but Jabrick was really the latest victim of deforestation and its many ramifications.

Borneon orangutan

Human animal conflict often sees baby orangutans separated from their mothers. Image: Shutterstock

Mass deforestation in Indonesia has triggered so called human animal conflict in a nation with a growing population of 261 million and some of the world’s largest remaining tropical forests. The Asian country has lost almost a quarter of its forest area over the last 25 years, driven largely by the conversion of forests to industrial plantations. As a consequence of habitat loss, orangutans are often forced to encroach on agricultural land in search of food. Often once found by farmers, they are beaten, hacked, shot or butchered to death. In February this year, three palm oil plantation workers were accused of slaughtering and eating a critically endangered orangutan.

Often once found by farmers, they are beaten, hacked, shot or butchered to death. In February this year, three palm oil plantation workers were accused of slaughtering and eating a critically endangered orangutan.

The blame for this mass deforestation lies in both logging, mining and palm oil, a product used extensively in almost every household the world over. This versatile, edible oil is found in more than 50 per cent of household products on supermarket shelves. It is so popular as it can be processed to form a wide range of products with different melting points, consistencies and characteristics. Cosmetics, household cleaners, soaps, candles, lotions, body oils, shampoos, and skin care products all use this ingredient which hides itself under one of 590 misleading aliases. (For a comprehensive list visit the POFCAP website)

In the European Union, products can no longer hide ingredients under generic names –  a law in 2014 made clear labelling mandatory. However, in many other countries, companies still do not have to state that a product contains palm oil or its derivatives.

But this week, in time for World Orangutan Day, August 19th, a global certification programme has been launched by eight women in Australia, determined to save the world’s rainforests and their dwindling number of endangered orangutans.

Put a Label on It

The International Palm Oil Free Certification Accreditation Programme is an independent, not for profit international certification programme which has already been approved to certify products in Australia and the United Kingdom as palm oil free. The organisation has applications pending in 14 other countries including the US, France, Italy, Switzerland and Norway.

Bev Luff, Programme Manager of POFCAP and one of its founders, who has been heavily involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of these shaggy red-haired primates, says they realised there was a huge need for such certification.

‘People were starting to learn how to read the labels on their products and how to detect if palm oil was in a product or not,’ she explains. ‘But it’s quite complicated because there are thousands of names that palm oil can be called. So, people were starting to ask if there could be either a labelling or certification that would help them decide which products to buy from a supermarket shelf.’

Bev, who was involved in the set-up of the COP Borneo rehabilitation centre where Jabrick spent her last few months, is joined by seven other women in running the accreditation scheme that they hope will help consumers make choices that will protect the rainforests and their inhabitants.  They are all active professionals from sectors including business, education, research and government.

‘The fact we are all women wasn’t intentional,’ she explains. ‘We are a group of women who have worked with each other in various ways over the years. We all volunteer, we all work other jobs, and then we spend another eight hours a day running this programme.

‘We’re exhausted but we are very passionate and we all believe so strongly that this is needed.’

Palm oil as the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet has led to the widespread clearing of biodiverse, tropical rainforests across both Indonesia and Malaysia. While responsible palm oil plantations do exist, irresponsible clearing is still abundant.

‘We care,’ says Bev, ‘we are proactive doers, and all want to be part of the solution… We believe tropical rainforests are vital. Rainforests absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, help regulate our climate, prevent soil erosion, reduce the effects of worldwide climate change and are also a vital source of medicines…why wouldn’t EVERYONE want to protect them?’

Palm oil plantation

Palm oil plantations have led to the widespread clearing of biodiverse forests across Indonesia. Image: Shutterstock

‘Rainforests absorb carbon dioxide, produce oxygen, help regulate our climate, prevent soil erosion, reduce the effects of worldwide climate change and are also a vital source of medicines…why wouldn’t EVERYONE want to protect them?’

While palm oil is widely used across hundreds of thousands of products globally for its efficient ability to bind ingredients that would otherwise separate, make soap produce foam, give sandwich spreads a smoothness, and allow manufacturers to pre-cook noodles so all you have to do is add hot water, it is not the only ingredient capable of producing this array of results.

Members of the POFCAP team have researched palm oil for many years and in the past, even formulated their own palm oil-free products. Bev, who created her own range based on a passion to save the rainforests, says it’s easy to do.

‘In 2012 I made a range of vegan and palm oil free moisturisers, deodorants etc. and I sold them to raise funds for the animals. So, I have made them and I was just a lay person; imagine what can be achieved when a company has a lab and a team of formulators…’

And now the POFCAP team feel it’s time to take things global. And this certification scheme which will see the face of Jabrick – a victim herself of deforestation – stamped on the back of bottles and boxes in supermarkets around the world is helping them to facilitate consumer choices that can save the rainforests.

Palm oil free

Jabrick will forever be remembered as the new face of palm oil free accreditation. Image: Palmoilfreecertification.org

‘As more people are becoming aware of the deforestation issue in Indonesia they are seeking products which they know have definitely not been a contributor. For consumers, who wish to avoid palm oil for allergy, dietary or ethical reasons, it will be of great benefit to them to be able to see at a quick glance if a product is palm oil free.’

And that quick glance will show consumers Jabrick’s mischievous face, the POFCAP Trademark, which hopes one day to be seen on a par with other Certification Trademarks such as Fair Trade, Certified Organic, Vegan, Gluten Free and others. Jabrick will be a trusted symbol, a stamp of approval that a product is palm oil free.

‘Being the first and only Palm Oil Free Certification Accreditation Programme in the world consumers will be able to have faith that the same strict set of International standards and criteria have been used regardless of the country in which the product was manufactured.’

The organisation is very much in its infant stage but their hopes are high that this new system will be adopted further afield than Australia and Britain over the coming months. The aim is to streamline the process for companies to demonstrate their products are palm oil free while demonstrating their commitment to not only orangutans and rainforests but ultimately the planet as a whole.

‘Tropical rainforests are among the most threatened ecosystems globally due to large-scale fragmentation as a result of human activity,’ says Bev. ‘Efforts to protect and conserve tropical rainforest habitats are diverse and widespread. This new International Palm Oil Free Certification Trademark Programme is but one of those many efforts and no one effort or organisation will be able to solve the problem on their own. Without tropical rainforests, the planet has no lungs, and many more Jabrick’s and humans will pay the price.’

To learn more or know how to have your products audited and certified, visit the POFCAP website here

Featured Image Credit: The Centre For Orangutan Protection

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