Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Chocolate, palm oil and orangutans

By David Loughrey on Tue, 28 Jul 2009


Every now and then, the planets of television, topicality and newsworthiness align, and programming coughs up a show that seizes the zeitgeist in a most timely way.

That alignment takes place on August 25, when NHNZ Dunedin producer Judith Curran's Orangutan Island takes us to ground zero of the palm oil debate that has erupted with Cadbury deciding to reduce the amount of cocoa solids in its milk chocolate and add palm oil instead.

Ms Curran and supporters protested the decision, and the background to her opposition is neatly explained in the new season of Orangutan Island (Animal Planet, August 25, 9.30pm).

The show follows the story of young animals at the Nyaru Menteng rescue and rehabilitation centre, and the juxtaposition of images of uber-cute orangutans being pushed around in a wheelbarrow with those of their forest home denuded of its flora for palm trees gives the issue strong visual resonance.

On top of that, the award-winning Orangutan Island is quite clearly the best example of its genre - ever.

While any hint of earnestness is a drunken lurch for New Zealand's only television column with a deep commitment to nihilism, Ms Curran's argument is compelling.

"I have seen from the ground and from the air pristine rainforest give way to massive swathes of cleared land as far as the eye can see.

"I've seen it at every stage of destruction, the trees felled, the logs sold and the land burned, and then neatly planted with oil palm trees for millions upon millions of hectares.

"I've also seen what happens to the land in Borneo after several crops of palm oil.

"It turns to sand and becomes a desert without its protective rainforest canopy.

"I've also seen first hand the results of this devastation to the animal population.

"Seven hundred [and growing] baby orangutans live together in the largest primate rescue centre in the world at Nyaru Menteng in Indonesian Borneo.

"Every single one of them has been orphaned and/or suffered heinous injuries as result of losing their rainforest home to the plantations.

"They are considered pests by the plantation managers and their mothers are killed, hacked apart with machetes, burned [often alive] and shot.

"The babies often escape death at this stage because they are valuable and are sold as pets on the illegal black market."

To Cadbury, her message is clear.

"I ask Cadburys to reassure their customers that they have looked into this and provide evidence that they are sourcing their palm oil from the estimated 1% that truly does come from purely agricultural and not de-forested land.

"If Cadburys can provide this evidence, they will be congratulated and will easily regain their status as New Zealand and Australia's most trusted brand."