Dr Galdikas Warns Our Generation: Addiction to Palm Oil and Dangers of Logging

At Fashion Industry Broadcast, we are observers of the human-animal in all its glory. In our new up-and-coming documentary series, Get Up! Stand Up! we champion those who make it their business to make the world a better place. Today, we explore the world of legendary female scientist – Dr Birute Mary Galdikas.

Credit: The New York Times

Today’s Changemakers are diverse and inspiring for so many reasons, but not all of them made their mark via clever marketing on social media. Take for example Dr Birute Mary Galdikas, one of the world’s legendary “Trimates”, those three pioneering female scientists who travelled out over 50 years ago to study the behaviour of apes.

Their work fundamentally changed our understanding of who we are as a species and how we are impacting our closest genetic relatives. Dr Galdikas is still there 50 years later, on the ground doing her vital work to this day. And it’s only become more intense as she plays the role of advocate, eco-warrior, and voice of reason to a new generation.

Written by Niyati Libotte, with additions by Anjali Bhatia.

50 Years In The Field

Credit: Booktopia

Featured on the covers of the National Geographic amongst other respected scientific tomes for her ground-breaking work, Dr Galdikas focussed on the island of Borneo to study the mysterious orangutan. She was also among the first in the 1980s to draw attention to the role that the destruction of ancient ecosystems plays in the emergence of new infectious diseases (like Ebola, AIDS and hey, Covid-19). And yes, she was the one who raised awareness of the danger we’re facing due to our ongoing love affair with palm oil.

The Orangutan and its Natural Habitat

I had the great privilege of visiting Dr Galdikas in situ in 2014. Her base, named after mentor Dr Louis Leakey, was originally built to study the orangutan in its natural habitat. But with logging and the demand for palm oil in hyperdrive over recent decades, Camp Leakey became a vital place of refuge and rehabilitation for orphaned and injured orangutans, as well as an active lobby space for forest preservation and regeneration. In celebration of her incredible 50-year legacy to improve conditions for her beloved primates, I recently chatted with Dr Galdikas on where things stand close to a decade later.

       Credit: Orangutan Foundation International

Dr Galdikas has been buying land to ensure the safety and the survival of those ecosystems within the private structure.

“But the land is very expensive”, “we pay more than the palm oil plantations do.”

There is a global trends towards profit and capitalism over the custodianship and preservation of the land, and the Indonesian government is under pressure. According to Galdikas, they are all in favour of good conservation, orangutan protection and helping orangutan species survive into the future.”

Galdikas continues, “The problem comes in the field when you have to do the implementation” as most forests are not protected and the profit from palm oil and logging is very high. Once palm oil companies buy concessions to grow their plantations, “You have to get rid of the forest”.

Credit: Orangutan Foundation International Australia

“If you’re destroying the forest, then you are destroying the orangutan population”, says Dr Galdikas. “The problem is that everybody wants to do good. Everybody wants to help endangered species, but the problem comes to the implementation when it interferes with profit-making.”

“The problem is not necessarily illegal logging”

Galdikas says. The problem lies with industrial timber estates, pulp and paper. A medium-sized company is well over 100,000 hectares of palm oil concession or palm oil plantation. “So that’s the problem.”

And contrary to what it says on the packet, right now there is nothing that could be called sustainable palm oil.

What is Sustainable Palm Oil?

Credit: Palm Oil

For Dr Galdikas, it’s a company that doesn’t “destroy nature”. A sustainable company leaves 50% of its concession to nature and has corridors for wildlife, not just orangutans, but for all wildlife. This pays decent wages to people without taking indigenous peoples’ land away from them.

Local people cannot sustain a living from palm oil because of the vast resources required-  fertiliser and water etc, which are not always affordable.  Protecting the plantation from fruit thieves is also a problem in local plantations. “People do go in and just steal the oil palm so they can sell it – it’s an expensive commodity” says Galdikas. “It’s possible to have sustainable palm oil and so on. But the problem is that you give up property.”

Credit: Goodtoknow

A multimillion-dollar company can be sustainable if they protect “50 meters of forest alongside the rivers”, and expand it to the other side. Galdikas suggests that this can result in a safe ”one-kilometre corridor for wildlife along the rivers.” However, the claim from the palm oil companies is, “We’ll go bankrupt if we do that!”.

Dr Galdikas understands that whilst these people are warm and gracious “for them, it’s all about profit.” There’s no point trying to persuade people who have absolutely zero reasons to change their ways because it doesn’t.

Accumulating Power

Credit: The Guardian

None of the large corporations want to do the really hard work. It’s too costly for them to sacrifice profit to protect nature, wildlife and endangered species.

“Policies must change”, says Dr Galdikas. “Our definition of success, personally and otherwise must change. Because nowadays, what creates a successful person is a person who has a lot of money. One who controls resources. What we need is less greed and authentic interest and care for nature and wildlife and the earth. Those people exist, but those people find it hard to accumulate any kind of power.”


Fashion Industry Broadcast’s Get Up!, Stand Up!, is all about Changemakers: people across a variety of industries who are making moves toward a better tomorrow. They are creating ethically and environmentally sustainable new blueprints throughout industries, whether it’s fashion, entertainment, conservation or any industry that seeks a better tomorrow.

Credit: Fashion Industry Broadcast

Get Up, Stand Up! discusses palm oil and its ubiquity in our products. It’s a global issue. Palm oil is present in most processed products or shelf products such as toothpaste and soap. Dr. Galdikas  claims to eat a lot of “peanuts”, because it is to only available snack in Indonesia without palm oil as an ingredient.

“It’s very hard to find fast food or any kind of food in an Indonesian Kalimantan supermarket that doesn’t have palm oil.”

She says.

Western culture has introduced these processed products to countries such as Indonesia, where people have given up their traditional ways and changed their food habits. “This is causing massive growth of obesity in our culture. This is about corporations having to integrate”.

An Epidemic

Currently, there’s an epidemic of health issues in the world. It’s multifaceted. And this is a conversation we need to have. The episode I’ve written is called “You Are What You Eat”. It’s about the whole economics of palm oil and the dirty economics that’s happening in the background.

Dr Birute Mary Galdikas will feature as part of our “Get Up, Stand Up!” documentary series, to be released in 2023.

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