Could we possibly be contributing to the extinction of species without even knowing? Adjunct Communication Theory Professor Christy Frank took her first international trip to Sumatra, Indonesia, to find out.
There, as part of Photographers without Borders, she learned about the impact the palm oil industry was having on both human and wildlife.
“I really didn’t know how devastating things were from here until I went there,” Frank said. “It’s amazing to me how, in our everyday life, in the United States, a ton of the products we are purchasing are contributing to that problem.”
Between 1990 and 2005, the palm oil industry hit its big boom, causing plantations to replace rainforests in Sumatra. Frank said the sad thing is that people depend on palm oil plantations for their economy.
“It’s a double-edged sword. People really need ways to survive, to make money and support their family,” Frank said.
It’s not done in sustainable way, as the process involves illegal encroaching of national rainforests. Frank said access roads segmented the forests, hindering animals traveling between their habitats.
Although Frank knew of these issues before traveling to Indonesia, she was still surprised. She added that over half of the forests have been lost due to palm oil plantations.
“We would go a three-hour trip in Sumatra and 90 percent of the time we were driving in this van, it was all palm oil plantations,” Frank said. “It’s amazing how much they’ve taken over the land.”
The reason why palm oil trees are so detrimental to the environment is because they deplete the soil of all its resources. The trees consume up to 20-30 gallons of water a day and have caused water shortage in surrounding villages, Frank said.
This problem continues to exists because palm oil is cheap and there is a great abundance of it, Frank added. They get cheap labor for it, and when they establish the plantations, they burn acres and acres of rainforest.
“Not only are you killing animals with fire, but you are also releasing tons of carbon in the atmosphere,” Frank said.
Sumatra is the only place in the world where the Sumatran orangutans live. It’s also the only place where the orangutans, the rhino, the elephant and the tiger all coexist. Those four species are critically endangered, and other wildlife has been affected.
People have died and lost their homes because of palm oil trees. These trees have contributed to flash flooding, as their soil cannot handle floods.
Frank said her favorite part was working with the Orangutan Information Centre. She said the founder of the nonprofit grew up in Indonesia and has rescued wildlife through his work.
“They’ve turned things around, and he has given hope to the area,” Frank said.
Panut Hadisiswowyo started the organization and now has rescued hundreds of orangutans, all while helping reclaim illegal palm oil plantations.
“Everyone kept telling him that he couldn’t reforest a former palm oil plantation, but he proved them wrong,” Frank said.
To further prevent habitat loss, Frank is also working with the Sumatran Wildlife Sanctuary movement to protect and conserve more than 40 hectares of rainforest land.
“The land was amazing; it was wild like it was supposed to be, an actual natural habitat,” Frank said.
Frank said her trip to Indonesia was life-changing. She said it was special to see orangutans swinging so gracefully through the canopy of trees.
“I’m really hoping that I can be a voice for the voiceless by helping animals that have a very real chance of going extinct,” Frank said.
She believes that the only way to raise awareness on this issue is through sharing personal stories.
One of the stories she heard made everyone in the room cry. On a poacher’s last day on his job, he shot the mother orangutan to separate it from its baby. The mother kissed her baby, gripping it tightly in her arms until she took her last breath.
“I think when people realize how similar these creatures are to us, stories like that can really touch people because they realize what an impact our behaviors can cause on wildlife,” Frank said.
She said every photographer that went had a different personal motivation. Frank lost her grandmother a year ago. She said her grandmother’s passing made her think about the legacy she wanted to leave behind, so she found a cause that would allow her to give back.
Frank said some of the photographers will be submitting photos to help raise awareness.
“If we don’t take action now, it won’t exist for future generations,” Frank said.
Frank, who has now caught the travel bug, hopes to get involved in more humanitarian projects. She plans on applying for other photographers’ programs to travel internationally and bring attention to other issues.
“I think sometimes we get very disconnected as citizens over here; we don’t realize how connected we all are on a global scale,” Frank said
According to Frank, the Sumatran rainforests could be completely wiped out by 2030. She said people can help by making informed decisions on what they are purchasing. Consumers can cut back on how much they rely on palm oil products.
She suggested that people also support NGOs like the Orangutan Information Centre that have rescued animals and are providing a living space for people affected by the plantations. They have established coffee and orange farm plantations.
“It’s all sustainable, and they’re all helping local people get involved still make a living, but in a more sustainable eco-friendly way,” Frank said.
She believes connecting with people and working toward a common cause for a greater good is vital for humanity.
Her work is available on www.vanismedia.com and her fundraiser to support Sumatran Wildlife Sanctuary can be accessed on https://grouprev.com/sumatranwildlifesanctuary-christy-frank