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Indonesia's Forest Destruction, Palm Oil Expansion Threatens Orangutans and People


Indonesia's rapidly disappearing forests are one of the examples of environmental damage to be dealt with at the United Nations climate change conference next month on the island of Bali. It poses a threat to plant and animal life - including the endangered orangutan. Once found throughout Asia, the red ape is now only found on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and the island of Borneo, which is shared by Malaysia and Brunei. VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins reports.

Greenpeace, other environmental groups and U.N. statistics say Indonesia rivals Brazil for the world's highest rate of deforestation. They estimate Indonesia loses 300 football fields of forest every hour.

In Riau, on Sumatra island, large swathes of forest are being cleared to make way for palm oil plantations.

Hosporo is with Greenpeace. He talks here from their protest camp in Riau.

"Greenpeace is here in Riau to show the destruction to Indonesian forests for palm oil plantations," he explained. "The damage done not only destroys the forest but also animal habitats and causes greenhouse gas emissions which trigger climate change."

Demand is soaring for palm oil-derived biofuel, partly because it has been marketed as an environmentally friendly source of power.

But environmentalists say not enough thought has been given to how it is made.

They say the burning of carbon-rich peat lands to make way for palm oil plantations causes huge amounts of carbon dioxide to be released into the air, which they believe contributes to global climate change.

The destruction also impacts the vast variety of Indonesia's wildlife such as the orangutan - once prevalent in Asia, and now only found on Sumatra island and Borneo.

The Schmutzer Primate Center in Jakarta takes up 13 hectares in the city's Ragunan Zoo. It rescues and houses dozens of critically endangered orangutans and aims to release the apes back into their natural habitat.

Mimi Utami is the acting head of the Schmutzer Primate Center.

"Maybe this year we will be able to send back five orangutans and next year 10 orangutans to the forests of Sumatra and Borneo," she said.

Mimi believes Schmutzer is the first in the world to have captured orangutans build nests in trees, the same as they do in the wild - a big achievement in orangutan rehabilitation.

The Schmutzer Primate Center also works to raise awareness of the plight of the orangutans by educating the public. Less than 60 thousand remain in the wild and they are disappearing at a rate of more than five thousand a year.

Although three baby orangutans have been born at the center in the last year, experts are not certain how long they can survive as a species unless the destruction of their rain forest habitat is stopped.

Bustar Maitar, Greenpeace forest solution campaigner, says deforestation also hurts local communities severely.

"The local people still have a relationship with the forest," explained Bustar. "So when the palm oil plantation comes, it destroys their way of life."

Indonesia and Malaysia together produce more than 80 percent of the world's palm oil, widely used in consumer products.

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