Palm oil. A word that for most people conjures up the image of an emaciated orangutan, homeless in a razed Malaysian wasteland that used to be rainforest; rather like how the picture of the stranded polar bear is now becoming synonymous with the word climate change.
So does that mean that the palm oil campaign has worked?
It is amazing how many times we have seen that image of the orangutan and been told palm oil is the culprit, and yet sadly it is still the most widely produced vegetable oil worldwide and estimates indicate that 98 per cent of Malaysia’s forests will have disappeared by 2022. Equally as alarming, yet given much less media coverage, is the soy/cattle ranch conundrum. Be it clever diversions by meat lobbyists or a general ‘ignorance is bliss’ attitude for those who cannot bear the idea of living without meat, sadly we are not yet at the stage where for most people hearing the words ‘beef burger’ or ‘bacon sandwich’ flashes up a mental reminder that 4 million hectares (and counting) of Amazon rainforest are being destroyed every year for animal agriculture. Most people are familiar with the ‘football pitch size piece of forest lost every minute’ anecdote, and yet only a handful actually know why this large amount is disappearing. Very few consumers realise that the 4 million hectares statistic cited above represents the planting of soya, of which more than 90 per cent is for animal feed (and this includes for local, organic animals – being local and organic doesn’t stop them being fed on rainforest planted soya). People still seem to live under the illusion that the meat and milk they consume comes from animals fed on grass. I am regularly confounded to learn that a large percentage of fellow conservationists and environmentalists are not even vegetarian, let alone vegan.
As a conservationist specialising in primate rehabilitation, of course I love orangutans and am happy to know that so many efforts have been made to rehabilitate and protect this majestic creature. I have been to Malaysia and witnessed first-hand the kilometres upon kilometres of palm plantations that used to be rainforest. However one problem with focusing on a specific keystone species (one that plays a unique role in the ecosystem) is that so many others are then forgotten. Pandas, orangutans and polar bears are, it seems, somewhat sexier than say the Lehman’s poison frog or the helmeted hornbill, and yet these creatures, equally endangered, also play a vital role in the now highly compromised biodiversity of our planet. The only animal that is actually surplus to requirements in a normal ecosystem is….well, you’ve guessed it, humans!
If we focus on one big, gorgeous looking animal to alleviate a generic problem, then of course people will donate to charities to help said animal and soon we will see several protected areas with rehabilitation centres springing up with well meaning people rushing in to volunteer for them, and yes, people will feel satisfied that something is being done. And thus the fundamental problem loses its focus. People might even forget there is a problem, so long as they know a few orangutans are being protected. And in the case of palm oil, whilst the world has its eyes on Malaysia and its ambassadorial primate, this dreaded crop is now ubiquitous in other parts of the world such as the Amazon basin and Africa. Many do not realise that 70 per cent of primates (and countless other species) throughout the world are now threatened with extinction due to agricultural activity, and often far more so than the orangutan.
Another keystone mammal, WWF’s ‘poster boy’ the giant panda, has luckily been downgraded recently from ‘endangered’ to ‘vulnerable’. This is fantastic news, but said panda is not the only one to benefit from this remarkable come-back. Panda visitor centres in China are now multi-profit making businesses. And has anyone heard lately what the average salary of the CEO of a charity such as WWF amounts to? Whilst I have the utmost respect for the work of WWF and other similar large conservation charities, the giant panda’s feelings of gratitude for its redemption must be felt in equal measure by its ‘saviours’!
After completing an internship at Wild Futures Monkey Sanctuary in Cornwall (amazing small charity rescuing primates from the pet trade with low paid employees who are utterly dedicated to their jobs) and embarking on studies in primate conservation, I was delighted to be asked to become a Trustee for the UK charity Neotropical Primate Conservation, based in north-eastern Peru. For me this small and relatively rare model of a highly successful conservation charity exemplifies the ‘ideal’. Largely volunteer-run and with permanent staff living in basic but happy conditions, through a combination of empowering and employing local people, creating openings for student research and sheer dedication, NPC has succeeded in protecting vast amounts of Peruvian forest, with perhaps their biggest success to-date the bringing back of the yellow-tailed woolly monkey from the verge of extinction (numbers having risen by 30 per cent since the charity began and still rising). This charity has proven that you do not need to be a globally-known phenomena with highly paid staff members to save a species from extinction – although a little more fame wouldn’t do us any harm, we hasten to admit.
In late 2014, after raising funds to cover my trip, I visited the project and witnessed firsthand the individual wild animals saved by NPC from deforestation and the bushmeat trade, as well as the many domestic animals they have helped in the local area. Two of the charity’s founders, Drs Noga and Sam Shanee, have lived in the local village for the last decade and they and the project are seen as a huge part of the community. The charity’s success is due largely to forging partnerships with local villagers and comprising a mainly South American team of students and researchers, believing that a project is more sustainable if it is driven by those who know and represent the culture. A typical example of this is NPC Education Officer Yeissy Sarmiento, a young Peruvian who joined me during my visit, when we carried out a bushmeat education programme in the Peruvian Amazon basin (mainly on foot due to roads having been washed away by rainy season flooding). Whilst many young Peruvians from modest backgrounds aspire to jobs in banking or technology, Yeissy has dedicated her life to protecting her country’s environment and its animals and providing essential environmental education for future generations.
Along our way, I was astonished by the innate knowledge of local people that the rainforest is an essential part of their own survival and that in order for the forest to survive, the animals that live there need to be protected. By supporting local people financially and administratively to cultivate pockets of forest in harmony with the ecosystem, NPC is protecting this incredible environment from large scale logging and agricultural conglomerates, which raze and open up the forest, creating pathways for bushmeat and exotic pet trade hunters and opportunists. Recently I was thrilled to see Noga representing NPC’s work by taking part in a sting exotic pet trade arrest covered in the Channel 4 documentary Unreported World: Peru’s Monkey Business (at the time of writing still available to watch on catch up and YouTube). This is one of the first successful arrests and prosecutions of its kind for wildlife trafficking in Peru. Each time NPC helps protect a pocket of forest or close down a bushmeat market, hundreds of wild animals are saved. During my trip I witnessed the plight of Reke the Andean bear who had been rescued from a circus a decade ago and was living in a small, run-down enclosure. Thanks to a short and successful media appeal NPC managed to move Reke into a beautiful new forest enclosure. This was just one of the individual lives changed by NPC’s work that I witnessed whilst in Peru.
My trip to the Amazon was a life-changing experience. And as a vegan conservationist who had all but eliminated palm oil from my diet, I felt pretty pleased with myself at the time….until I started to see the coffee and chocolate plantations surrounding me, that is. I had arrived in Peru with the preconception that I had something to teach the local people about forest protection, and yet back in the UK I was consuming large amounts of monocrops that Peruvian employees of huge conglomerates were forced to plant in order to subsist. Back home, I started to think about monocultures….the world’s answer (along with hefty doses of pesticides) to the issue of catering to the planet’s burgeoning population. Be it from crops like soy and palm planted for use in vegan products or biodiesel (perhaps one of the biggest greenwashing hypocrisies of all time) to Californian almonds, if we as vegans are not aware of the origins of much of the plants that we consume, then we are often unwittingly contributing to large-scale deforestation and pesticide use that decimates all kinds of wildlife. But wait, what is wrong with Californian almonds, one might ask? Following a little bit of research (because almonds are an absolute staple of my diet) I was shocked to discover that due to pesticides having virtually wiped out the Californian wild honey bee populations that pollinate these nut trees, the almond monocrop industry now depends entirely on the commercial honey industry, i.e. a commercial beekeeper coming with his big truck full of hives and releasing the bees he farms for honey around the almond trees to pollinate them and make them grow. A concept that is neither environmentally-friendly – nor terribly vegan. Back home, I decided organic and local was the way forward; even if it meant swapping supermarket soya products for more expensive European versions or vital wheat gluten (seitan) made from British flour, eating a lot of organic cabbage in winter, replacing dairy-free spread with olive oil (all such spreads in the UK contain palm oil, albeit some brands supposedly sustainable) and spending half my weekly wage on French almonds and British Quinoa. “To be fair,” I told myself whilst waving goodbye to my bi-monthly splash out on a nice haircut, “the fact that I earn a living wage should, in my opinion, mean that I can at least afford to eat with a conscience.”
As vegans we can be proud in the knowledge that we do not contribute to the 3,000 animals killed per second in the world’s slaughter houses, the 40 million male chicks killed every year to support the egg industry, the 100,000 male calves killed for the dairy industry in the UK alone, the mass water and land wastage for animal agricultural, the largest source of greenhouse gas emmissions and the collapse of the world’s oceans. And yet I do know there are still many vegans who rarely check to see if a product contains palm oil and are totally unaware that certain brands of soya are not rainforest friendly. In my opinion, living a vegan life should be what it says ‘on the tin’- following a lifestyle that is conscious of our impact on the planet and its beings in as much as we can be, in everything that we consume. I do hope those CEOs of the large conservation charities are using their extra pennies to source rainforest friendly chocolate and coffee to compliment their vegan, local organic lifestyles (whilst undoubtedly affording a nice hair do at the same time!). Somehow I’m not so sure, but I as long as I do, whilst I might not have those extra pennies, I know I am working towards a legacy of a living, beautiful, incredible planet that will be all the more so for my conscious choices. I think perhaps what distinguishes vegans from other ‘eaters’ is that we think. Once we are informed (or once we have sought to inform ourselves) we do everything we can to consider the impact of what we eat. And this is what will save our planet.
We are all conservationists.
- Katie Chabriere is founder of Harrogate Animals People PIanet Initiative (HAPPI) happiharrogate.co.uk
- Find out more about Neo Primate Org at neoprimate.org
- At NPC we are celebrating our ten year anniversary this year. Please help us continue to help the many needy animals like Reke the bear and to halt the bushmeat trade by making us a birthday donation at http://www.totalgiving.co.uk/mypage/neoprimatenpc