How the world is waking up to palm oil in the wake of banned Iceland orang-utan advert

Samuel fishwick
An orang-utan in Borneo: Getty Images

In the midst of the mud-slinging and chest-thumping in British politics this week, another primate has made a different kind of fuss. Iceland’s “Rang-tan” advert, depicting an animated orang-utan sheltering in a child’s bedroom from loggers destroying its habitat in Borneo, is on course to be the most popular Christmas advertisement to date.

The video has already been watched more than 30 million times, despite not appearing once on television.

Created by Greenpeace and narrated by the actress Emma Thompson, it highlights the devastating impact of the palm oil industry, a cause that is finally reaching public consciousness. It taps into the same energy generated by the anti-plastics movement.

Palm oil is highly saturated, making it versatile and, crucially, cheaper than animal fat. As a result, it is in up to 50 per cent of supermarket products, from bread to chocolate, cereal and even toothpaste. Sir David Attenborough has explained how this cheap fix is ruining natural habitats, and Leonardo DiCaprio has donated money to reforestation projects for affected areas. There are alternatives to palm oil — here’s how we are waking up to its impact.

Primates under threat

The World Wide Fund for Nature estimates that there are only 14,700 Bornean, 13,846 Sumatran and 800 Tapanuli orang-utans left in the wild, a sharp decline from around 230,000 a century ago (the charity now classifies them as “critically endangered”). Their common name, orang-utan, is derived from the Malay and Indonesian words meaning “man of the forests”, but in the past 20 years those forests have been decimated by logging crews (oil palms are native to West Africa, not Borneo, and one conservationist likens them to “Cane toads in Australia). In Indonesia, a football pitch-sized space is cleared every 25 seconds.

“It feels sometimes, when you drive through Indonesian Borneo, like the whole island is now one massive palm oil plantation and timber estate,” says Dr Birutė Galdikas, a primatologist who began pioneering field studies of orang-utans in 1971, and has worked with them for the past four decades. Her study site, Camp Leakey, in the Tanjung Puting Reserve in central Borneo, still rescues orang-utans from the pet trade, and those whose habitat has been destroyed by agro-business, but the cost of relocating them the vast distances necessary by helicopter is prohibitive.

Iceland's banned Christmas advert (Iceland)

“The longer one spends with them, the longer one realises that the three per cent difference in DNA between humans and orang-utans actually doesn’t explain who they are,” says Galdikas. “They’re more like humans than anyone could imagine. Their motions are similar, their intellects are similar. Obviously, they have the intellect of a child — they don’t read, they don’t write, they don’t speak, but nevertheless they’re so similar to us that if humans have a soul, orang-utans must have one too.”

Palm off

Galdikas says we can make a difference. “Try to avoid palm oil as much as possible, in food and detergents that you use, and toothpaste.” Until we get truly sustainable palm oil, which may be on the horizon, I’d recommend reading supermarket labels, product labels and staying away from the wrong oils.” That can be tricky. The WWF regularly updates a list of retailers and producers, and their respective palm oil credentials. Much of the palm oil we consume appears on our shelves as processed “derivatives”; the website Ethical Consumer recommends learning the words “palm”, “stear”, “laur”, and “glyc” to better recognise more than half of fatty acids compounds. Iceland has committed to phasing out the oil in all its own-brand products by the end of the year.

Take it to the top

There are more complicated takes. “Very few NGOs wanted to name the real driving force behind it, which was criminality and corruption by politically powerful individuals, and I did,” says Clare Rewcastle Brown, an investigative journalist, author of The Sarawak Report (a book and blog), and sister-in-law of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Clare Rewcastle Brown (AFP/Getty Images)

She says the plight of the orang-utan is emblematic of wider devastation in the region. Her work has targeted local “kleptocrats” in Malaysia. In the region of Sabah, she hounded Musa Aman, the province’s former chief minister, who “received tens of millions of dollars in timber kickbacks”, from 2012 onwards. He denies the accusations. In Sarawak, where Rewcastle was born, she called for those who have “siphoned off the wealth of the region” to be brought to justice. “I’ve met the tribal people whose lands have been taken from them by brute forces in many cases, by the big logging gangs going in and raping the women and daughters of these native communities.” She recalls palm oil plantations where “tractors were lined up in a row to bring the jungle down as quickly as possible”. The loss of tree roots sees the soil drain into the rivers, turning the waters red and killing fish. Deforestation of what is, largely, peat jungle releases vast quantities of trapped carbon into the air, accelerating global warming.

Orang-u glad you saw me?

Ads such as Iceland’s can only help, says Rewcastle Brown. “It plugs into grassroots shoppers and gets that message across that we have a choice over what we buy,” she says. “And the publicity’s great. I’ve been banging on about this for 10 years but I had to damn well get a story that overthrew a government before I could get anywhere.”

The ad itself has proved controversial. On November 9, Iceland Foods tweeted: “You won’t see our Christmas advert on TV this year because it was banned. But we want to share Rang-tan’s story…” It wasn’t actually banned, just judged unfit, yet the furore sent it viral. James Corden shared the video, tweeting: “This commercial was banned from TV for being too political. Everyone should see it.”

The business move away from palm oils will cost Iceland £5 million but generated generous publicity. This week it deployed animatronic orang-utan models in London to walk the streets.

“Come to Borneo and Sumatra,” says Galdikas. “Once you visit the habitat countries you are helping preserve orang-utans and other wildlife. It increases the importance of these animals through tourism, and tourism is a powerful money-generating industry. Or donate to Orang-utan Foundation.” Last orders at the last-chance saloon.