Sumatra, Indonesia. One of the largest islands in the world and home to the Leuser Ecosystem where over 500 different species co-exist - including the orangutan. Dense rainforest, lowland, mountain and alpine ecosystems all form part of this critically important region that is disappearing at the hands of palm oil plantations, illegal logging, roads, and destructive farming practices.
Sumatra has one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, and is the only place where tigers, rhinos, elephants and orangutans live side by side. Its rainforests are vital to hundreds of species of mammal and bird, as well as to millions of people who depend on it for their food, water and livelihoods. That’s why conservation charity the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS) has teamed up with Lush to try to turn back the clock on deforestation...
For over half a century Indonesia was logged illegally. Forests, which once amounted to 162 million hectares, were felled until they were just a fraction of their original size. Today, they continue to be destroyed at one of the fastest rates in the world - a staggering 80,316 hectares of forest were lost in just the five years between 2008 and 2013. This relentless destruction of Sumatra’s rainforests has pushed the Sumatran orangutan to the edge of extinction, and the species is now classified as critically endangered.
Director of SOS Helen Buckland explains what this means for orangutans. She says: “At the start of November 2017, the discovery of a new species of orangutan was announced in Sumatra – so now we have the Sumatran orangutan, and the Tapanuli orangutan. Both are critically endangered.
“The loss of their habitat is the ultimate threat we need to tackle to ensure the survival of orangutans. Sumatra’s forests have been falling relentlessly for decades, pushing orangutans and many other species to the edge of extinction.”
Despite the devastating impact on wildlife, forests are still being destroyed at an alarming rate, with more and more land being lost to agricultural plantations and illegal logging.
In order for orangutans and the hundreds of species that call the rainforest home to survive, something needs to be done to preserve and reforest their native habitats. The good news is that progress has already been made. It’s been proven that with the right agricultural techniques and education the forest can grow back - and with it the native wildlife can repopulate and prosper.
Helen remembers the first time she experienced the impact reforestation can have. She says: “When I first visited what is now our flagship forest restoration site, I was faced with rows and rows of oil palms inside the border of the national park. The soil was dry and cracked, and there was absolute silence, not even bird song. I planted a rainforest tree seedling in that barren soil, and hoped that it would survive.
“Just two years later, I went back to the spot where I had planted that tree. I heard gibbons and birds singing, and heard from the team about a herd of elephants that had passed through the previous day. That, right there, was conservation in action! Not long after that the team spotted the first wild orangutan to return to the area.
“It takes a long time to grow a rainforest, but it’s incredible how quickly the restoration sites can once again become valuable habitat for orangutans and so many other species. Within 3-4 years, nature takes over, and wildlife starts to return long before that.”
SOS works alongside sister organisation OIC on the ground in Sumatra to protect orangutans, their forests and their future by tackling the causes of deforestation as well as the symptoms. But more than helping to reforest the environment, SOS works to educate communities on the importance of the forest and teach them ways to keep it productive and functioning.
The charity teaches permaculture techniques to the community in a purpose built education centre in order to show people a way to make the forest profitable without cutting it down.
Helen says: “No matter how many trees we plant, the most essential element of successful rainforest restoration is the true, deep engagement of the communities who live next to the Leuser Ecosystem in becoming protectors of the forest, and defending its borders from future threats.
“The education and outreach approaches we support take many forms, from screening conservation films in remote rural communities with a bicycle-powered cinema system, to specialist training in eco-agriculture. It’s an absolute cornerstone to all the other work.”
In November 2017, to help support SOS in their goal to turn back the clock on deforestation in Sumatra, Lush has introduced 14,600 Orangutan soaps in all European markets, with all proceeds (minus VAT) going to the Sumatran Orangutan Society to buy 50 hectares of palm plantation in Indonesia and restore it back to native forest. In the next stage in March 2018, all Asian Lush markets will be launching the SOS Sumatra Shampoo Bar, to raise fund for SOS to buy another 50 hectares of palm plantation and turn it into a permaculture and regenerative project.
Head Buyer Simon Constantine explains why Lush decided to work alongside SOS. He says: “It was the Sumatran Orangutan Society who first took the time to show me, first hand, the impact that our ingredients were having in Sumatra. Since then we established a commitment to change the way Lush works, removing palm oil from our soap base and glycerine for example, and to try to rectify the damage that was done.
“I think this was a turning point, to realise that we can't just do the least-bad thing any more, but had to commit to creating solutions to the problems that palm and other ingredients cause. I have yet to meet as effective an organisation that can show real solutions on the ground, regrowing over 500 hectares of rainforest on land that was illegal palm plantations just 10 years ago.”
The SOS Sumatra Shampoo Bar is palm-free, made with softening coconut oil and water-purifying moringa seeds, with uplifting patchouli and orange oils. The shampoo bar will be available online and in-stores across Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand from 16 March 2018, all proceeds will go to SOS to purchase another 50 hectares of oil palm plantation and turn it into a regenerative forest that carries out permaculture projects, with a hope to restore the land and wildlife.
But it doesn’t stop there. Helen explains that there’s a whole host of things people at home can do to help save the rainforest and the wildlife that lives within it. She says: “Every person who makes a donation, signs a petition, or signs up to climb a mountain or run a marathon for SOS, becomes part of our worldwide movement. Every social media share helps us communicate about our cause and galvanise support. We need to be able to explain to people all over the world about the urgency of the situation, but also the reasons for hope - the amazing men and women on the frontline, working tirelessly and having a huge positive impact.”
Find out more about SOS and their work, and sign up to regular updates here.
"The soil was dry and cracked, and there was absolute silence, not even bird song. I planted a rainforest tree seedling in that barren soil, and hoped that it would survive."
Photo credit: Save Our Souls installation by Ernest Zacharevic