When France’s ecology minister Ségolène Royal implored the world to stop eating Nutella this week, she became the most prominent Western politician to join the anti-palm oil crusade. But her call for a boycott of the popular chocolate-hazelnut spread is far from an original approach. Greenpeace launched an anti-palm oil campaign using another favorite sweet treat back in 2010. It used a gruesome online video to target Nestlé for including illegally-sourced palm oil in its iconic Kit-Kat candy bars. The video, which has been viewed more than 750,000 times, shows an office worker unwrapping a Kit-Kat in eager anticipation only to bite into a bloody orangutan finger coated with a thin layer of chocolate.
To understand why orangutans are dying so that people can enjoy Kit-Kats and Nutella involves an 8,000-mile journey to Borneo, the world’s third-largest island. Its 140 million-year-old rainforests host species not found anywhere else on earth, including the critically endangered Bornean orangutan. The island is also the world’s largest source of palm oil, a key ingredient in a vast array of consumer products, from hand soap to candy bars. Many of the palm oil plantations are created by illegally cutting down protected areas of the rainforest. As a result, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that the rainforest, which covered 74 percent of the island in 1985, will dwindle to just 32 percent by 2020.
That is bad for the orangutans who call the forest home, but it is even worse for the future of the palm oil industry: a local development agency forecasts that out of approximately 13 million acres of land suitable for palm oil plantations in the Malaysian part of Borneo, little more than 2 million acres remain, and those will be fully cultivated by 2020. The responsibility for managing what is left of the forest and its endangered species must be shared by governments, palm oil producers and the international corporations who buy the oil. Until recently, none of them were willing to face the facts: cheap palm oil is good for corporate profits and the local economy, but unless its illegal production is halted, there will be no rainforest left for sustainable palm oil plantations—or orangutans.
Adenan Satem, the chief minister of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, took a small step towards addressing the problem in November 2014. He met with CEOs of six of the largest timber companies operating in Malaysia to warn that he would no longer tolerate illegal logging and palm oil production. “They carry out the robbery of our forests in broad daylight and right under the noses of enforcement officers,” Satem said of the illegal palm oil and timber operations. His commitment to saving the rainforests appears steadfast. Earlier this year, he announced that more than half of the 500 licenses to clear rainforest for plantations would be revoked. In January, his government armed the forestry department with drones and automatic weapons, and announced plans to hire more enforcement officers.
The international corporations who use palm oil for their food and consumer products have also recently begun to play their part in combating illegal deforestation. Kellogg’s, for instance, faced pressure from conservation groups in 2013 following reports that it was buying illegally-grown palm oil from Wilmar International, an Asian agribusiness conglomerate that is the world’s largest producer of palm oil. When Kellogg’s announced in February 2014 that it would only use sustainably-produced palm oil, conservation groups heralded the move as a sign that the industry was cleaning up its act. Wilmar itself and several other companies followed Kellogg’s announcement with their own deforestation-free policies, including Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and L’Oréal. Perhaps because of Greenpeace’s bloody orangutan video, Nestlé’s response was among the most thorough. The company hired a consulting firm to audit its suppliers for illegal activity, and claims that since 2013 all of its palm oil is sustainably sourced.
For the food and consumer goods manufacturers, using sustainably produced palm oil offers a powerful marketing opportunity to distinguish themselves from illegal production. Palm oil is also cheaper than its alternatives: recent advances in cultivating oil from yeast as a palm oil substitute are promising, but 30 percent more expensive. And palm oil production has fueled development at many levels of the international economy, from the consulting firms that certify its sustainability to the farmers who grow it legally.
Nevertheless, labeling Nestlé and buyers of its Kit-Kats as orangutan killers was an effective way to force palm oil growers and buyers to acknowledge their roles in illegal deforestation. Royal’s call for a Nutella boycott has already made waves both in France and abroad, reminding the public that palm oil production is still a problem. The future of Borneo’s rainforests and the long-term viability of the palm oil industry depends on whether or not Satem, Royal and others can keep the pressure on the makers of Kit-Kat, Nutella and other products. But it’s also up to chocolate lovers: if they don’t want to choose between their favorite candy and the survival of orangutans they might have to heed Royal’s advice to avoid Nutella, at least for a while. That will help encourage Malaysian palm oil producers and their customers to play by the rules.
And while going without chocolate might be tough, you could always put the money saved into a piggy bank for a dream vacation to see Borneo’s orangutans in person.
Tom Brant is a graduate student at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.