Irresponsible palm oil production is one of the biggest threats to orangutans, but a more sustainable system could help protect the forest.

Where ancient, wildlife-rich forests once stood, now there’s oil palm as far as the eye can see.

The cultivation of this one crop has led to the loss of natural forests across Sabah, and today it covers a fifth of this Bornean state. It also contributes to climate change – the loss of the forest, coupled with the churning up of carbon-rich peat soils, releases millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Yet oil palm is an extremely efficient crop – it produces between four and 10 times more oil per land area than other edible oils such as soyabean, rapeseed and sunflower. It’s also a vital part of Malaysia’s economy, and provides thousands of families with a stable income. The good news is that palm oil can be produced more sustainably, in a way that could halt the destruction of the forest and protect the livelihoods of local people.

Established in 2004 with the help of WWF, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) aims to make sustainable palm oil the norm by establishing a certification system. The guidelines require producers to meet certain standards, such as reducing their impact on the environment, removing deforestation from their supply chains, setting aside areas for wildlife and upholding workers’ rights.

Smallholders can find it challenging and costly to improve sustainability and get their certification. To help Sabah’s state government reach its goal of 100% RSPO certification by 2025, we’ve been working with palm oil producers to try different approaches to group schemes.

Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) male baby, Central Kalimantan, Borneo (1000px)
Bornean orangutan male baby, Borneo © naturepl.com / Fiona Rogers / WWF

These initiatives help reduce the costs involved in achieving RSPO certification by enabling growers in the same location to work collaboratively. WWF has helped set up a cooperative in Tawau in Sabah to support medium sized growers and smallholders that are becoming RSPO certified; another 25 of Sabah’s smallholder oil-palm growers have reached the first milestone towards certification in the last year, which will grow the cooperative to over 380 members.

And that’s not all. Since 2007, WWF has helped replant over 2,218 hectares of forest – around 346,000 trees – in a landscape that was heavily degraded by forest fires and irresponsible logging. Orangutans have been seen in the restored forest, using the new trees for food and shelter. We’ve even seen youngsters here, which is a promising sign the habitat is improving. By working with oil palm growers and government partners, WWF is also helping restore wildlife corridors to reconnect once fragmented patches of forest within palm-oil-producing landscapes elsewhere in Sabah. Thanks to people like you, we can move towards a world where sustainable palm oil is the standard, and protect the ancient forests that orangutans call home.

Female Bornean Orangutan Tanjung Puting National Park= Central Kalimantan
© naturepl.com / Anup Shah / WWF