Written by Jessie Panazzolo

What is black and white and red all over?

An embarrassed conservationist who couldn’t see the shades of grey.

I feel like it is time to divulge a little into my own childhood for this particular story and maybe its time to share with you all how I have grown up throughout my journey into conservation. I remember being fifteen and sitting at my desk staring at an oil palm information poster about the impacts of deforestation on orangutans. I was so frustrated that I was too young to get out in the field to do anything about the issue and I was racking my brain at how fifteen year old me could save the orangutans. You have to keep in mind that the internet wasn’t as evolved back then and I’m pretty sure Facebook wasn’t even invented so it was harder to enact large scale social change than it is in today’s society just by sitting in your bedroom.

All my teachers at school said my assignments were too emotive and my friends said that I couldn’t change anything, so I should just give up. But that made me even more determined to do something about the crisis that was the decimation of the world’s rainforests. But to tell you the truth, I am glad there was no social media at that time because I was so uneducated beyond the scope of the actual mechanics of deforestation and I was so very black and white in my views. I believed that palm oil was ruining this planet and no matter what, it should be boycotted.

Years later, I thought I knew more and I had actually been to Malaysia and had seen oil palm plantations with my own eyes and I had seen rehabilitated semi-wild orangutans. One fateful night, I watched a documentary about cloning Tasmanian Tigers back to life and it made me madder than I had possibly ever been. I couldn’t understand why rich white men were spending buckets of money trying to bring an animal back from the dead when the last individual was chucked out with the rubbish as if it was nothing but waste. I fumed as I saw the similarities between the life histories of the Tasmanian Tiger and Tasmanian Devil and I couldn’t believe that money was not spent on Tasmanian Devil conservation instead. Nobody was doing anything right, so I believed I had to do something.

Luckily at this time, social media had started to poke its head out of the shadows and I created a petition for the sandwich chain that I worked for to take palm oil out of its bread and cookies, as I had received no correspondence internally for my requests. Much to my surprise, the petition blew up and my face was taking up a whole two page spread in the state newspaper. The next thing I knew, a company car was taking me out of my GIS lecture and to a conference call with the head office. I had dropped their sales overnight and they promised to remove palm oil by 2015 if I took down the petition- which I doubt actually happened. As a result, I was invited to an oil palm conference where I could listen to the goss from all sectors of the industry from the Malaysian Government, to zoos and goods and services manufacturers. This experience was really interesting and broadened the complexity of the issue which I always believed was so simple. As soon as I learned the vast array of people impacted by palm oil in an economic and social sense, I almost regretted boycotting palm oil and felt ashamed for being so black and white. That day I learned that oil palm plantations yield the highest amount of oil per square hectare compared to other crops so if managed sustainably, oil palm may not be the devil I always thought it was.

As the years went by I found myself in Indonesia, meeting the top orangutan conservationists in the industry and attending more conferences and events under their wings. I needed to understand the issue from every perspective from the farmers working on the land to the companies adding palm oil to their chocolate bars. I will never forget the day when I was sitting in another palm oil conference listening to a range of speakers, when we all couldn’t ignore the protesters outside anymore. The protesters were actually an organisation who I had volunteered for in those times where I was too young to do anything on my own. They were invited to sit in and listen to the rest of the conference for free, yet they declined and went home. That instance has resonated through my brain ever since. Why did they choose ignorance over education? Surely access to more information would allow you to add more ammo to your case or were they worried they would start to come around to the idea of palm oil being used as a mainstream resource? I lost respect for that organisation then and there and never affiliated with them again.

The point I am trying to make with this story is that in conservation, especially on the internet, there are a lot of people with black and white  thoughts who believe that you need to conform to their way of thinking with no alternative option. I don’t want to sit here and belittle those people because as a kid, I was one of them. The difference is that I chose information over ignorance and have been able to contribute to some awesome restoration projects in Indonesia as well as conducting research which shows that both orangutans and elephants use newly restored oil palm plantations, after just five years of reforestation. If I had chosen ignorance, like the protesters at the conference, all I would be doing is sharing doom and gloom information rather than providing positive solutions. I don’t really believe that anyone has much empathy left for more doom and gloom so I doubt that I would have ever really made any real impact, just like my friends at school told me I wouldn’t.

So don’t tell people they don’t care about animals if they eat meat, they might be allergic to legumes.  Also, please for the love of god don’t aggressively comment on peoples social media telling them they are living wrongly. Lead by example, empower, provide positive solutions and more importantly have conversations with people and find out what invokes their life choices and why they live the way they do. You never know, you may be able to learn something and educate someone else at the exact same time in a trusting and personalised interaction. Give it a try- I believe in you!

For more on Jessie’s life, check out @ecolojesst on Instagram