Primatologist, industrialist and entrepreneur fight Big Palm Oil

Primatologist, industrialist and entrepreneur fight Big Palm Oil

Palm oil fruit image by dolphfyn via Shutterstock.

Pak Ahmed has a little game he used to play, sometimes by himself, and sometimes with friends.

He'd begin just after the sun woke the sky above his village of Telaga Pulang, which stands on stilts along the eastern bank of Borneo's Seruyan River. He'd continue as he rolled his first cigarette of the day and traversed the wooden bridge to the boardwalk that serves as the village's spine. Then he'd climb into his hand-hewn klotok, fire its engine, and klatok-tok-tokk out into the broad, dead river — where he knew the game would end, and not the way he hoped.

Soon, children would be clattering along the elevated structure in their school uniforms, and their mothers would gather outside the two shacks that serve as general stores, each stocked with soaps, salves and other sundries derived from the product that was slowly enslaving them.

"Before palm oil came, we fished from about 6 a.m. to noon, and then relaxed," he says. "Sometimes, we hunted in the woods in the afternoon."

Like most of the people of Telaga Pulang, he speaks of the product as if it were a sentient entity devouring the forest. For them, palm oil isn't just a fatty acid used in toothpaste and cereal. It's a proper noun encompassing the product, the plantations, the imported workers and the dead river.

Palm oil, he explains, came to this part of Borneo in 2005, when workers carved shallow drainage canals into the soft peat soil on the western bank of the river, across from Telaga Pulang. Then they strategically removed teak and other choice timbers before grinding 10,000 hectares of forest into pulp, murdering any orangutans who got in their way and kidnapping the now-homeless sun bears, clouded leopards and gibbon apes, which they sold as exotic pets.

After dispatching the forest and its inhabitants, the workers inserted palm saplings as far as Pak Ahmed could see. Then they fertilized the saplings, and the fertilizer dribbled down the canals and into the river, where it fed massive algae blooms that killed the fish and destroyed the economy of his village. Mines came, too, and their poisons killed more fish, so upstream fishermen began dropping explosives instead of nets, depleting the stocks even further.

Yet, as he pulled his bamboo cage up out of the water on this day in 2007, Pak Ahmed still indulged that little tingle of hope that kept him coming back day after day, week after week — for months after the rest of his family and most of his neighbors had gone to work for palm oil. That tingle was to him what the unturned card was to the blackjack addict, and it was the only prize his game ever yielded anymore, because the game was this: As he awakened and rowed and worked, Pak Ahmed tried to pretend that he didn't know what he'd find when he pulled his bamboo traps up from those dead waters.

Before the mud parted and the cage emerged into the light, he could still imagine it was 2005 instead of 2007.

But eventually the cage did emerge, and in it Pak Ahmed saw what he knew he'd see: dozens of baby "fingerlings" flopping desperately in a basket designed for one or two fat adults 100 times their size. In terms of saleable product, his hauls were down 90 percent, and it was about to get worse.

A company called PT Best had laid claim to the entire Seruyan Forest, which is a massive natural filtration system that regulates water flows and provides non-timber forest products like honey, wax, and wild rubber for hundreds of other villagers. It also acts as a protective buffer to a quarter-million hectares of peat forest in the Tanjung Puting National park, which means its destruction would affect the rest of us, too.

That's because peat is a thick, rich loam of decaying plants that have been accumulating for thousands of years, locking up carbon in the process. If the peatland went, it would release hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.

Eight thousand miles to the west, Biruté Galdikas was engaged in her own variation of the game as she frantically zipped between appointments in Los Angeles, where she'd gone in a futile effort to raise the money she needed to save Pak Ahmed's forest.

Like the Seruyan River, the City of Angels had been a fertile fishing ground. It served as Galdikas's fundraising hub and helped her build Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) into a bulwark against the slaughter of orangutans in the Tanjung Puting.

Unlike the Seruyan, however, Los Angeles hadn't stopped delivering. It had simply been eclipsed by palm oil, which generates roughly $1 million in profit per year for every thousand hectares harvested. That's more than OFI's entire operating budget, and PT Best had a license to convert 150,000 hectares of forest to palm oil plantation. Each of those hectares would become another cog in a cash machine that Galdikas knew she could never match. Yet, like Pak Ahmed, she kept going back to the source that had served her so well, day after day, week after week, month after month.

That's what she was doing when her phone rang.

"I remember it clearly," she says. "This man says he's calling from Shanghai, China, and he won't stop talking, won't let me get a word in edgewise, and then he asks me — and I'll never forget this — he asks me if there's a forest that needs to be saved."

The man's name was Todd Lemons, a serial entrepreneur from the United States who'd grown up listening to his grandfather's tales of his adventures in the Amazon and reading National Geographic. It was on the magazine's October 1975 cover that he first encountered Galdikas. Although less than 30 years old when the photo was taken, she was already a rock star in the world of primatology, and she looked the part. Strikingly attractive, her gaze was brooding and world-weary and motherly all at once. A baby orangutan clung to her neck, and an adolescent lolled playfully in front of her. Both were orphans, and both had suffered the trauma of seeing their mothers murdered before their eyes.

She was one of three researchers known then as the "Trimates", the others being Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. The name came from their mentor, Louis Leakey, who had helped Galdikas launch the operation that would become OFI. Over the decades, she had rescued and rehabilitated thousands of orphaned orangutans, and in 2001 she asked for permission to expand into the Seruyan Forest.

Her application, however, disappeared into the local bureaucracy, and a few years later she learned that PT Best, working through subsidiaries, had gotten concessions to convert the entire forest into a palm oil plantation. Now, with one hand on her steering wheel and the other holding her phone to her ear as she navigated Los Angeles traffic, she was fighting to save the forest from certain destruction.

"When Todd called, I thought it was like a deus ex machina — you know, like in the old Greek plays? When the writer got himself into a mess, he'd lower Zeus down in a machine, and he'd pop out and save the day," she says. "But then he started going on and on about how trees capture carbon and people would pay us to save the trees to stop global warming, and I thought to myself, 'Oh, a carbon cowboy.'"

Still, something kept her on the phone. Maybe it was his knowledge of forestry. Or maybe it was just curiosity on her part. Whatever it was, when they hung up, she'd pegged him as sincere and knowlegeable about the timber trade — but naïve about the rest of the world.

He called again about a week later, this time from his home in Hong Kong, and caught her on her way to Los Angeles International Airport.

"I was in a hurry," she says. "So I told him that if he was serious, he'd have to come and visit me in in Pangkalan Bun."

About a week after that, she heard a knock on her door. It was Lemons.

This article, part of a multipart series, originally appeared at Ecosystem Marketplace. Palm oil fruit main image by dolphfyn via Shutterstock.