“They shouldn’t be developing it, but the power of commerce and capital subverts all legislation in this country. There is no law enforcement or rule of law,” Usher says.
The battle to save the orangutans is not helped by the readiness of multinational corporations to use palm oil from unverified sources.
Hundreds of products on UK supermarket shelves are made with palm oil or its derivatives sourced from plantations on land that was once home to Sumatran orangutans.
Environmental campaigners say that the complex nature of the palm oil supply chain makes it uniquely difficult for companies to ensure that the oil they use has been produced ethically and sustainably.
“One of the big issues is that we simply don’t know where the palm oil used in products on UK supermarket shelves comes from. It may well be that the palm oil in products on UK shelves came from Tripa,” Usher says.
In October, the Rainforest Foundation UK singled out Superdrug and Procter and Gamble — particularly its Head and Shoulders, Pantene and Herbal Essences hair products — for criticism over the use of unsustainable palm oil. An Ethical Consumer group traffic light system produced using the companies’ responses also placed Imperial Leather, Original Source and Estee Lauder hair products in the red-light category.
A separate report by Greenpeace, also issued in October into Sumatran palm oil production, accused Procter and Gamble and Mondelez International (formerly Kraft) of using “dirty” palm oil.
The group called on the brands to recognize the environmental cost of “irresponsible palm oil production.”
According to the Rainforest Foundation’s executive director, Simon Counsell, part of the problem is that even companies that do sign up to ethical schemes, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, cannot be certain that all the oil they receive is ethically produced because of the way oil from different plantations is mixed at processing plants.
“The smaller companies sell to bigger companies and it all gets mixed. Even those companies making some effort cannot be certain that what they are getting is what they have paid for,” he said.
Driving out of Tripa, the whole area appears to have been given over to palm oil plantations: some long-established, 6m to 7.4m tall trees in regimented rows; others recently planted.
Every now and again there is a digger, driving a new road into what little forest remains, the first stage of the process that will end with the forest burned and gone, and replaced with young oil palms.
There is a steady flow of lorries loaded with palm fruits, heading for the processing plant not far from the town of Meulaboh. From there, tankers take the oil to the city of Medan for shipping onward.
It is outside Medan that the orangutan victims of clearances are taken to recover, at the SOCP’s quarantine center.
These are the animals rescued from isolated stands of forest or from captivity. Those that can be released back will eventually be taken into another part of the island.
Anto, a local orangutan expert, says the spread of the plantations is fragmenting the remaining forest and isolating the orangutans.
“Then people are poaching the orangutans because it is easy to catch them,” he says. “People isolate them in a tree and then they cut the tree or they make the orangutan so afraid that it climbs down and is caught. After that they can kill it and sometimes eat it. Or they can trade it.”