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CORRALITOS – In the last two years, Emma Freedman, 12, has given up her favorite Heath toffee bars, lobbied international companies to stop using palm oil in products and spent summer mornings selling homemade crab apple jelly at the Corralitos Farmers Market – all in the name of love for the long-armed, oval-faced, endangered orangutan.
With Halloween on Monday, Emma is hoping others will think twice about buying and consuming products made with palm oil, an ingredient that comes from plantations that are rapidly replacing the rain forest homes of numerous endangered species in Indonesia and Malaysia.
“Mostly I was astonished by their intelligence and how they can make you laugh,” she said recently in the Corralitos home she shares with other Orangutan supporters, parents Josh and Patty Freedman and her 10-year-old brother Max. “Their eyes are so emotional that I just fell in love with them. I felt I needed to do something to help them.”
Emma’s and her brother Max’s passion for the fuzzy-headed primate grew out of a family adventure to Borneo where the children got to watch orphaned, baby orangutans at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in the Malaysian Sabah District of North Borneo.
The home-schooled children met scientists who were helping the animals recover from attacks by humans, domestication and the destruction of their habitat. By the time they left Borneo, Emma and Max had brainstormed an ambitious action list.
“I think that I knew I needed to save them even before we were there for very long,” Emma said.
The children wrote letters to companies such as Trader Joe’s (which uses sustainably harvested palm oil) and Hershey’s which sell products made with palm oil. They planned fundraisers and awareness campaigns to encourage other children to become involved.
“Instead of being in hopelessness or sadness it was more of a door,” Emma said. “It was like someone was giving me an opportunity by giving me this experience and I chose to step through this door and take action. As soon as I decided it was something I wanted to do, I just had so many ideas.”
Patty Freedman describes a sense of urgency among the children. Borneo, she said, was a time of awakening for them. “They were really determined that this was a problem that needed to be solved. We didn’t know what to tell them. This was clearly disturbing them.”
In a family travel blog (http://redsuitcase.wordpress.com/?s=orangutan&submit=Search), Emma’s father wrote how the children whispered long into the night. “Maxie whispered to her, ‘I can’t believe this is really happening. I’ve always wanted to do something like this.’ We finally got them settled down, Emma writing and Max furiously thinking. Emma insisted on reading us one more plan, which we all liked, and then she said, ‘and Daddy, one more thing: Thank you for taking us seriously.'”
Emma said sales from baked goods, paper flowers and hand-sewn “stuffies” (little creatures from recycled sweaters) have helped her and her friends contribute $1,000 to the Orangutan Appeal UK, a charity based in the south of England dedicated to the rehabilitation and preservation of Orangutans and the conservation of their habitat. She hopes to eventually create an online fundraising store, help create school curriculum and create an e-card-a-thon, a kind of electronic chain letter, about the issue. They have also become a regular sponsor of a baby orangutan named Cherie.
Emma has been saving up her winnings from placing first in Santa Cruz County Fair landscaping competitions and science fairs to pay for a trip back to Borneo to work with orangutans and she, Max and her mother will be heading back to Borneo next month where an ecotourist camp has offered them all free lodging, food and a river guide to support her campaign.
“I’m not so much focusing on raising money for the orangutans as I am on raising awareness and recruiting other kids to join the efforts to save them,” Emma said. “Because by myself I can’t just save the orangutans but if there were lots of kids, we could have more impact.”
Specifically she wants people to read product labels and stop buying items that are made with palm oil. The long list of products includes cookies, peanut butter, frozen dinners, low-fat dairy foods, crackers, popcorn, soaps and cosmetics.
“That’s one of the easiest things for normal people to do to help save the rain forest,” Emma said. “They can just look at the labels of things they buy.” People who are giving away treats could also draw attention to the problem by labeling their gifts “palm oil free,” she says. “If the demand goes down a lot then they’ll stop burning the rain forest and building plantations. But, it will take lot of letters.”
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