Imagine a place where steep mountain ranges, rushing rivers and pristine tropical forests support an ecosystem that is teeming with life. It’s one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and serves as an essential lifeline for some of Earth’s most majestic and endangered species. Under its 2.6 million hectare canopy, orangutan mothers cradle their babies in nests high in the trees, elephants gather in groups to socialize and bathe in the crisp river waters, rhinos hide elusively and tigers roam over vast territories. This is the only place on the planet where they all live together in harmony, along with over 180 other species of mammal who call this beautiful place home.
This is the Leuser Ecosystem, a timeless forest on the remote island of Sumatra, in Indonesia.
As we crossed rivers and trekked through protected forests, I marveled at the beauty and abundance of the life around me. Vines coiled intimately around the trunks of towering but slender trees and majestic ferns lay nestled at the base of every branch.
The underbrush remains moist year-round, supporting a variety of fungi that rise from the earth and branch from the tree trucks in all manner of bizarre and alien forms.
Suddenly, we came across a gathering of over a dozen orangutans, an occasion that happens only very rarely when the seasonal booming of a grove of rambutan trees produces an irresistibly delicious fruit feast. Young babies cling to their mother’s bellies as older youngsters venture further from mom to take a closer look at the strange creatures who’ve come to marvel at them. One adult male was resting comfortably in a cradle of branches and pretended not to acknowledge the subtle advances of a female lurking nearby. As hornbills fluttered across the sky, announcing their presence with a characteristic trumpeting call, the scene was bursting with so much life and abundance that it instantly brought tears to my eyes and lifted my heart in hope.
Intertwined with this feeling of joy, however, was an equally intense feeling of sadness. After becoming lost in this incredible moment, I had almost forgotten the real and devastating reason why I had traveled half way across the planet to find myself in Sumatra.
That reason is palm oil. This indescribably abundant and vitally important habitat is under attack right now by palm oil companies, and we are all playing a vital role in its demise.
Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil that can be found in approximately 50 percent of all pre-packaged snack foods and other common household products, all across the planet. This includes items that can be found in your local grocery store and, most likely, in your home.
Right now, huge swaths of vital forest habitat in Indonesia are being cut, cleared and burnt to the ground to make way for industrial-scale palm oil plantations. These illegal operations produce a cheap supply of palm oil to a voracious international market that is growing at an exponential rate. Demand for this vegetable oil has sky-rocketed in the past decade as palm oil companies have managed to keep consumers in the dark about the hideous crimes being committed against humanity, endangered creatures and the planet.
I hope I have managed to impart even a sliver of the exceptional uniqueness and immense beauty that is embodied by this special place. Only then can one begin to fully understand the weight of loss that is sustained with every single fallen tree. Yet the true measure of this problem extends far beyond the initial insult of deforestation and spreads like a virus into lives of hundreds of innocent people and animals alike.
Towns bordered by palm oil plantations have begun to experience a dramatic increase in the intensity of yearly flooding events as a direct result of erosion from deforestation. Watershed pollution and forest resource depletion are all contributing factors to increased poverty for thousands of Indonesian peoples. The collateral impact of palm oil plantations on the surrounding forests and inhabitants is equally devastating. Human encroachment has resulted in a dramatic increase in human-wildlife conflict, including the intentional poisoning of elephants, poaching of tigers and beating orangutan mothers to death so that their babies can be sold into a life of misery in the captive pet trade. We have already driven some of Earth’s most incredible species to the brink of extinction and the conflict is only escalating.
Despite bearing witness to this devastating reality first-hand, I left Sumatra with a strong conviction that we can, and will, save this special place. My sense of hope is substantiated by a number of success stories from local organizations who have gone against all odds to successfully shut down illegal operations, reclaim the land and regenerate the forest with all of the incredible biodiversity that was once lost.
From inside the political sphere to the local community level, organizations on the ground are working every angle to stem the tides of corruption and strengthen community investment in their rightful lands. By protecting the rights of local communities, engaging in wildlife rescue and conducting undercover investigations and media campaigns to galvanize protection for this forest, they have already managed to prevail against incredible odds. These tactics are proven and effective, but there is a missing link: The consumer.
WE CAN STOP THIS!!! Without even knowing it, we have all been contributing this tragedy by consuming everyday products from big-name brands, such as PepsiCo, Kraft and Heinz, among many others. It is estimated that approximately 50% of all pre-packed foods found at your local grocery store contain palm oil. The fate of the Leuser is hanging in the balance of OUR actions, EVERY singe day, including THIS DAY.
PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE read every label before purchasing a product and spread the word, this is your greatest POWER. In a way, the pervasiveness of palm oil in all of our lives is both the root of the problem and the ultimate solution. Your challenge is to look at every single purchase as an opportunity to vote for the kind of world that you want in the future, because the fate of the Leuser Ecosystem rests #InYourPalm.
Please join us.