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Standing Committee on Economics

COCKS, Mr Leif Robert, President, Australian Orangutan Project


Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: Welcome to today's hearing. Thank you for making yourself available a little earlier than we first thought. I remind you that, although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, these hearings are legal proceedings of the parliament and warrant the same respect as the proceedings of the House or the Senate. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of the parliament. Would you like to make some opening comments before we open it up to the committee to ask questions?

Mr Cocks : Yes. I sent a PowerPoint presentation; is that available to the committee?

CHAIR: That was provided to us in the briefing papers; thank you.

Mr Cocks : Briefly, I will go into what is outlined in that. Orangutans are the most intelligent being on the planet, second only to humans. They have the intelligence of a five- to six-year-old child. They are self-aware and have developed the 'theory of mind'. This is important because, like us, they can be inflicted with immense emotional distress and suffering as well as physical suffering. Fundamentally, through the 'don't palm us off' campaign and the unique nature and position that the animal has, Australians are concerned about their plight.

Unfortunately, they also share some characteristics that highly intelligent animals have. Highly intelligent animals do not adapt to the environment through the natural selection of genes for multiple offspring; they adapt to the environment by culture. So by passing a unique culture on to their offspring, each individual offspring uniquely adapts to the environment rather than allowing natural selection. To do this, they have to invest a lot of time and effort into very few offspring. This unfortunately means that the orangutan is also the slowest reproducing animal in the world, only having their first baby at 15 and then there being up to eight or nine years between individual infants. This means that they are extremely prone to extinction; they are still only one per cent of the population of a given area, and that population will go extinct over time.

This is compounded by the fact that 80 per cent of their habitat has been removed; it is fragmented into small populations. That it is fragmented is important because of genetic viability of the population. From a purist point of view, all the genes were translated equally across the generations and you need at least 500 animals to have genetic diversity and to maintain its consistency against genetic loss. However, with the orangutans' social system, it works out that you probably need about 55,000 orangutans in one genetic population, and that does not exist anymore. They are so fragmented that they will eventually inbreed, so we have to do a lot of work just to keep what is there surviving.

Of course, if you look at the real numbers here, with Sumatran orangutans, there are only 6,300 left, and we are losing approximately 1,000 a year. With the Borneo orangutans, we had 55,000 left, which in theory should be enough; but we have discovered already that there are three unique subspecies that have adapted to particular environments and that is likely to change to five subspecies in the near future. So we are not dealing with a really good outcome. We have an animal that is very prone to extinction, we have a huge loss of its forests and its natural history does not lend itself to bouncing back from destruction.

Unfortunately, agriculture, just as with anywhere in the world, tends to compete for the same land which wildlife most likes, for the same reason. Therefore, what we find is that 80 per cent of orangutans live outside protected areas. We tend to, as in all parts of the world, create national parks for fundamentally two reasons: water catchment protection and somewhere that is unsuitable agriculture—that is, the hilly areas. Orangutans are lowland swamp species, so they are surviving in secondary degraded forests and not in any primary forests which are left in protected highland national park.

The biggest conversion of orangutan habitat from its rainforest is because of palm oil, so that is the No. 1 reason that the forest is converted, which displaces the natural forest. With respect to the protection of orangutans in Indonesia, since the 1950s they have been a protected species. Interestingly enough, as you probably know, there is no actual animal welfare legislation from a world perspective to protect an endangered species. But law enforcement is poor, especially in the remote areas, and the orangutans which are not killed in the destruction of forests try to eat the palm oil to survive and they are killed as agricultural pests. A lot of palm oil plantations have bounty hunters to kill the orangutans. Of course, with all the human rights and other issues in these areas, for the police it is not a high priority to look after endangered animals such as orangutans.

This has meant that the species has been totally decimated. Because the babies are considered valuable when the mothers are slaughtered, about one in five to one in six baby orangutans do survive the slaughter, so we have over 2,000 infants now in the care centres. The big trouble is that we have nowhere to put them; we have no safe habitat in which to put them.

In Sumatra, we have a slightly different situation. Because the extinction was found in the 1830s, we have some forests there that are available for rehab for orangutans. But in Borneo, the big trouble is that they are all being held in these facilities in deplorable conditions, because they simply cannot cope, and diseases such as malaria and TB are now going through them. As the wild population slowly diminishes, these captive orangutans become increasingly a large proportion of the population. Ten years ago conservationists would say, 'Yes, euthanase them; they're a waste of time; just protect the wild ones,' and they were only kept alive from an animal welfare perspective. Now even the conservationists are coming on board and saying, 'No, you have to keep these.' Now they are a significant part of the survival of the species.

There is also a big connection here with Australia's commitment to REDD and stopping the drivers of deforestation, which is causing, some estimate, up to 20 per cent of the carbon dioxide produced for global warming. This obviously has a significant health and economic impact on the whole world, not only Australia, and we have the obligations that we have signed up to, to effect these drivers. If you are able to look at the PowerPoint, you will see the diagrams of the map of destruction of the rainforests in Borneo for the sake of agriculture and, of course, the loss of the orangutan habitat is a very much smaller and much more devastated subset of that forest because they are competing with the lowland areas with agriculture being most favoured.

Your basic classic example is the peat swamps, which are your big carbon stores of the planet. Clearing the land itself causes massive emissions, but once it is replaced by agriculture such as palm oil, the peak domes collapse over a long period of time and they emit massive amounts of carbon over a long period. In fact, you probably would have seen in Europe the Malaysian Palm Oil Council coined the 'trees of life to help the planet breathe'.

It had TV ads. Both the TV ads and the modified ones have been banned by the British advertising standards as being misleading. So those sorts of claims do get made, but they simply do not hold up to scientific fact, although those claims will continue.

The problem with a monoculture cash crop is that effectively we have the biological diversity—it is just not the orangutans; it is tigers, elephants, honey bears and so on. The large amount of agrichemicals used to keep agriculture going pollutes the water of the local villages, obviously, and most palm oil plantations are not sustainable; they are a short-term cash fix and most will be unproductive in 40 to 50 years, after about three rotations.

Certainly, just like any agricultural expansion, maybe the earlier palm oil plantations were in good areas. Then, as the commodity goes up and a boom occurs, and with lack of planning, the more marginal areas are taken over for short-term profit, which cannot in the long term sustain a palm oil industry. So it does not have a long-term economic future for the areas. Of course, with land rights, one of the things that we often do in the Australian Orangutan Project is to work with the communities and support them. It is often coined—the ad refers to this too—as rainforest protection; that it is the economy versus the environment, people versus wildlife. That is not true. The indigenous people are also affected and they are displaced from land and there are numerous documented cases of grievances from indigenous communities in Sarawak in Indonesia being displaced by palm oil.

CHAIR: Mr Cocks, I do not mean to interrupt you, but we do have your submission and I was wondering whether there are any other particular points you want to make, or is it an appropriate time to start to ask you some questions about the submission?

Mr Cocks : I am happy for you to ask questions, if that is the best way.

CHAIR: Thank you for that. I will start with a few questions. I think there is no-one here on the committee who thinks that the destruction of rainforests and the threat to orangutans' survival is a good thing. That is something that everyone on this committee comes to equally. The issue of the destruction of rainforests: if it was not palm oil, it could well be other crops. The issue is actually the destruction of the rainforests to be used for agriculture, isn't it?

Mr Cocks : Yes. Agriculture is the problem; that is correct.

CHAIR: The query that brings to my mind is whether labelling is the appropriate way to try to address what you have identified as being a very serious issue because the effect of the label is to presumably discourage consumers from buying something that says 'palm oil' so that less palm oil is grown and less rainforest is being destroyed, in your view.

Mr Cocks : I probably think that is unrealistic. Australia is a very small market in the world and the expanding markets are obviously in India and China. Europe is probably the largest market. I guess that the fear from the people against palm oil labelling was not of so much significance in Australia, but the sound argument for it had a domino effect taken up in the larger markets in the global community. In reality, is anyone expecting palm oil products to be banned or disappear? I do not think so. I guess the concept is that, if a product is clearly labelled, it allows consumers to make choices in response to which manufacturers may choose to source their palm oil from sustainable sources.

CHAIR: I understand that. I am not questioning the end result that you want to have. I am trying to get to how you achieve it and just how effective the labelling will be. In particular, the legislation that we have before us does not distinguish between sustainable palm oil and palm oil generally. A consumer who may be concerned and in a situation where they want to make that choice, believing that they are having some effect on the habitat of the orangutan, may in fact be choosing to boycott the growth of sustainable palm oil because there is not the distinction that is there.

Mr Cocks : Yes.

CHAIR: That is a concern that I am flagging and raising and seeing whether you agree with that.

Mr Cocks : I am not sure that I agree with the argument. If the argument is, 'Let's not label for palm oil; let's label for palm oil and indicate its sustainability' as part of the legislation—as to whether it is sustainable or not; I can understand that argument—but not to allow the development of that process in order to encourage sustainability, because it does not do it in the first step, seems not correct. Remember that manufacturers have the ability to label and promote their products from sustainable sources. It is open to anybody who has palm oil in a product to demonstrate to the compliant public that a benefit to buying their product is that it comes from a sustainable source.

CHAIR: The point is about what is the most effective means of getting there. I am raising it also in the context that there is the Blewett review that is being conducted. This legislation cuts across the normal processes that occur in terms of that. The Blewett review in relation to recommendation 12 seems to get you to where you are suggesting we should get with a recommendation in relation to palm oil. Why would we abandon that process and the usual process to adopt this legislation that does not distinguish between sustainable and unsustainable palm oil and, in your words, from the Australian point of view, would have very little impact in terms of the rainforests in South-East Asia? The response from government is anticipated by the end of the year. Why wouldn't we follow that usual process?

Mr Cocks : I think there is an impact from giving Australians a choice to see whether a product is available in the product set that they are buying; otherwise, you would not have such a strong effort from industry groups to stop it. I guess there is not a clear line, as one would indicate; otherwise, if it had absolutely no flow-on effect to provide for sustainability—and I guess this would mean, for some, sustainability would reduce short-term profit—there would be no necessity to combat the ability for Australians to have choice.

CHAIR: The current bill, though, sets out a regime where the food authority would develop the appropriate labelling standards over the next six months. It is going to cut across a process for which there will be a government response within that period, yet it does not actually bring forward, in any meaningful sense, the result that you are saying should occur.

Mr Cocks : Okay. I need to ask a question. Are you suggesting that the mandatory labelling of palm oil would actually stop the ability to put in legislation within six months in order for the labelling of sustainability of palm oil products?

CHAIR: I am just questioning the utility of the exercise. There is already a process that is underway. Why would we change a process that is underway in the same time period using the usual processes and involving, most importantly, the states of the Commonwealth and New Zealand, which, unless they agree, the standard that would be set by this bill would just sit on a website without any application. I am kind of raising with you these process issues. We could, for a whole range of reasons, decide to implement this legislation and then nothing occurs with it, and what we have done has been to take off course the usual process that has a recommendation and is there waiting for government to respond to. I am just putting to you that that seems to be a rather strange way of approaching this from a process point of view.

Mr Cocks : No. What I am failing to understand from my perspective is this: why would you abandon one piece of legislation—as we are saying, we are all concerned about the rainforests and orangutans—for another process unless that outcome is already determined, and I am not hearing anything specifically to say that those two processes are mutually exclusive. I can understand your point that it is doubling up.

CHAIR: It is more than doubling up. This process, if this bill is enacted, comes from a totally different angle in that there has not been the consultation with the states and there is no agreement with the states that any state would adopt the labelling. In asking you to comment about that process, it just seems to be, on the face of it, a rather strange process to go down when something is in place already with recommendations.

Mr Cocks : I understand your point and I certainly have to defer to your greater knowledge of the political and administrative processes. However, our position is that the processes are not mutually exclusive—we applaud them all—and progress of this bill through parliament for the mandatory labelling of palm oil is what the Australian community wants now. It is not for foreign interests to tell Australians what they can or cannot know about the products that they are consuming; we as Australians need to decide that. That is something that we can do now in order to give Australians a choice, as they have asked for, and also to help encourage the manufacturers and the producers of palm oil to move to sustainable sources of it and become sustainable for the wildlife, for the orangutans, the rainforests, global warming and Indigenous communities. I see that as the overriding benefit, while recognising the legislative confusion there seems to be of having these two processes.

Ms OWENS: I have two questions. I am a consumer, like many, that would like to see any palm oil product in the food I eat as coming from a sustainable source—

Mr Cocks : Fantastic.

Ms OWENS: I regularly use my consumer choices to do that. I am concerned that, if this bill goes through, it will not actually achieve that for me. So can I run this scenario for you?

Mr Cocks : Yes.

Ms OWENS: Because it is out of the FSANZ system and it is not enforceable, which means that states do not have to take it on, and New Zealand has already said that it will not, if I pick up a product that says 'contains palm oil', in whatever way it has to, that means it contains palm oil. If I pick up a product that does not say 'contains palm oil', that might mean that it does not contain palm oil or it might mean that it does contain palm oil, but it came from New Zealand or one of the states that opted not to adopt the federal legislation. So, as a consumer, I am actually not going to know. What is your response to that?

Mr Cocks : Of course, our response is that we believe that the states should take up the process of ensuring that all palm oil is labelled in the products which are manufactured in their state. That is our position. Is the process, because of this, less than optimal? Yes; but that is no reason to stop the process, because the big manufacturers which do label palm oil would be encouraged, if consumers were asking them—if their clients were saying to them, 'Look, I'm concerned about palm oil, Can you tell me about the sustainability of it?' et cetera—to move to better sources.

Ms OWENS: That was my second point, because I care about the sustainability more than I care about the palm oil. Again, this bill does not allow me to know that or even whether it has palm oil in it at all, without essentially going online and doing the research, which I could do even if this bill did not exist. So again I am wondering, for me as a consumer, how this improves my ability to make a choice about sustainable palm oil.

Mr Cocks : The fact is that at the moment you have to go through a lot of effort. I take you to be obviously far more articulate, intelligent and wise about the process than the average consumer like me. The average consumer is not going to be able to pick up the product and go, 'Well, it says vegetable oil', and find out and do the pursuit of asking about it. It is about bringing it out in the open to make it easier for people to ask those questions and have information available to them in a far easier format so that they can ask the questions of the manufacturers and give them their point of view that they would prefer the manufacturer to move to a sustainable product.

Ms OWENS: I have just one more. My other concern as a consumer is that, if I go to all this trouble and I manage to find out what is sustainable and I figure out which states are not in it and I know that if it does not say 'no palm oil' and it comes from Queensland, for example, that that is not what it means—I go through all that trouble and I actually manage to buy sustainable palm oil—I then want to know that, if the palm oil plantations do not continue to grow, the rainforest is not cleared for something else. Again, I go back to the point: would the logging take place anyway? Is there something about palm oil that causes the logging to take place or would the forests still be logged?

Mr Cocks : Orangutans mostly live in secondary forest which has been logged. The logging concessions are given and the logging companies have gone through and taken out all of the valuable timber, which in a way, if it is done properly—and I am not saying that it is, but if it can be done properly—is not a bad thing because they actually leave all the fruiting trees. So, once it recovers, it is actually quite good for the wildlife and orangutans. The trouble is now you have to wait 50 or 60 years before you can actually go through and take out valuable timber again and there is money sitting there. The driver now is that it is not viable for logging anymore on a commercial scale. There are really only two industries which look at it and say, 'Actually I could turn this into a profit.' One is the pulp and paper industry and the other is palm oil.

Palm oil becomes a major driver because of the huge value of this commodity and its ability to turn money very quickly—and obviously pulp and paper. If you stop the drivers for deforestation from the palm oil industry, would the pulp and paper companies move in and take the same forests? We do not do anything because we have not done everything. We know that there is a lot of evidence that illegal timber does end up in Australia, and certainly from unsustainable sources, and that needs to be addressed too; there is no doubt about that. It becomes a circular argument: 'We will not label palm oil because that is not the exclusive driver and therefore obviously, if we want to have sustainable sources and stop illegal timber coming to Australia, we cannot do that because palm oil could be doing it.' We just go around in circles.

I acknowledge the criticisms and the difficulties of the process of drivers to sustainability and stopping the destruction of the rainforests, but there is no other way of doing it; otherwise we just sit here and nothing will ever happen. Yes, we tackle one issue at a time and move for the greater good of the indigenous communities, the wildlife people, global warming and our integrity as a nation; we move step by step to a better process. We should not stop at that first step because we have not done the other steps yet.

Ms OWENS: So the logging would still take place, obviously—there would still be the logging—but you are saying then that the habitat would not be severely damaged?

Mr Cocks : No. For example, the logging is not going to take place for another 50 years because it is not economical any more. You have taken all the good timber out. The timber companies, for example, will get the timber, say, for 60 years, but they will give it back long before that. They have already got the timber, so they are gone, and they will hand it back. It is their concession to hand it back to the government. Then the government has two choices. The first is you sit on it until it becomes viable again. You have a second choice, which is what we are working to now, which is registration of forest concessions where we pay the same taxes as a logging company but we go and restore the environment and rainforest with wildlife and indigenous communities for community development of the local people in the area. The third option is that you redesignate as production forests, which are totally cleared; so everything is bulldozed right down to the ground. Everything is killed and it is converted to permanent forms of agriculture, which is predominantly palm oil, No. 1, and pulp and paper, No. 2.

Dr LEIGH: Thank you very much. I just want to talk a little about the broader context in which we are discussing this issue, which is obviously in the context that, as your PowerPoint presentation has noted, there are other Australian government initiatives to protect orangutans from deforestation. I want to get your views on two areas where those initiatives are under threat. The REDD initiative to which you refer is funded through the Australian government's package of initiatives that provide climate change assistance for developing countries.

Mr Cocks : Yes.

Dr LEIGH: But that has been criticised in the political arena. The coalition have been very critical of any use of climate change abatement mechanisms that see aid going overseas. What would happen to orangutan populations if we were to go down that path and scrap the REDD funding?

Mr Cocks : The fundamental issue for me and the importance of REDD is that land is worth money; trees are worth money. So the economic driver is that the rainforests would be destroyed, especially when you are maybe dealing with governments where law enforcement and legal processes are not as developed as well as they would like. The holy grail with climate change, as far as wildlife conservation is concerned, is to say, 'Actually, these forests can be demonstrated to be worth more intact to governments and the local people than they are destroyed.' Sure there are huge issues with REDD with leakages, the indigenous community and free and informed consent and the whole complex dynamics, but it is probably the only way to demonstrate to federal governments that the forest is actually worth more intact to them and the global community than otherwise.

At the moment I would argue that it is still worth more intact because of the environmental services—it provides water, flood mitigation and the money that indigenous communities get. What we are doing is translating. We are taking away from poor and disempowered people and giving it to rich and powerful people and they have to deal with the outcomes. That is very hard for large federal governments to get hold of. However, if they are getting billions of dollars through REDD to keep their forest intact, the legitimate argument is: 'In developed nations, you have already destroyed your forests and industrialised and then you come and tell us ''not in the forests'' because you want to stop climate change. Well, could you pay us for that?' It sounds like a legitimate argument to me, and it is an argument, I think, that will hold up. But I do understand the huge amount of problems in developing that which the Australian government are experiencing. But that is no fault of their own; the reason why they are experiencing those problems is because they are spearheading the process and, of course, they are coming across a difficulty that others who will follow can avoid as pitfalls.

Dr LEIGH: The other issue is that there is currently a substantial division in federal parliament as to whether Australia's climate change abatement scheme should be internationally linked or not. The government's position is that international linkage gets abatement at the most efficient cost and, of course, that international linkage could involve carbon farming in developing countries. The coalition's position is that no international linkage should occur. What do those two positions mean for orangutan populations?

Mr Cocks : I can certainly understand both sides of the argument. In reality—and I detect the idea of the restoration of forests concessions—we may be competing for a bit of forest which contains orangutans against large multinational pulp and paper or palm oil plantations and your poor NGO is only getting small grants and donors. There are economic advantages of, I guess, taking the low-hanging fruit because, if you are looking at all the things that we have to do to change our economy and the way we do things to go to a low-carbon environment and then we think, 'Well, actually we can knock off about 20 per cent of global warming by just not cutting down the forests,' and we have all these other values, it seems to me in a global sense a low-hanging fruit.

CHAIR: Thank you, Mr Cocks, for your evidence and for making yourself available a little earlier today; we really do appreciate it.

Mr Cocks : Fine; and I really appreciate you giving me the opportunity to give evidence. Thank you.

CHAIR: No problems. A copy of the transcript of your evidence will be sent to you. If there are any corrections that you need to make in terms of grammar or fact, please get back to us as soon as possible. Once again, thank you for your contribution here today.