Orangutan in the Board: A step further towards Board Diversity

In a path-breaking step towards increased Board-level diversity, Mun Kee Ma-Jik Bhd, a palm oil company in Malaysia recently appointed an orangutan to its Board of Directors. This is a historical step towards Board Diversity and globally the first instance of appointment of a ‘non-human’ Director to the Board of a company. The Orangutan’s appointment takes effect on 1st April 2022.

The Malaysian company believes that the great ape will help the company in managing the long debated human-animal conflict in the palm oil industry. This step is further expected to guide the company in its responsible expansion strategy.



Meet the new Board Member

Aman, is a seven year-old Bornean orangutan. She was orphaned as an infant when her parents died in forest fires. Aman has gained huge popularity over the years due to her socializing skills and her unique calm demeanour. She can show empathy towards stressed orangutans and this, according to the company, is a big asset to it. Aman will act as a Special Advisor to the Board and will help the company manage its human-animal conflict in areas where it is expanding its plantations.

Remuneration and Leave

Aman, the Director, will be paid his remuneration in bananas. He will be granted leave on International Orangutan Day which happens to be celebrated on 19 August. 



Orangutans are not known to destroy their own environment, like us the humans, the company officials stated. So there have been numerous incidents of orangutan attacks on company officials as they perceive a threat to their homes. By bringing one of their representatives into the Board the company hopes for ‘greater profitability by helping us to sensitively manage conflict areas’. The company’s Chief Sustainability Officer Dr. Gurin Woscher has quoted: “Aman will help develop our stakeholder engagement and responsible growth plans and will add another dimension to our free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) policy”. It may be mentioned here that #FPIC principle is used by companies to ensure bottom-up participation with local communities before developing land. The principle has been used for the first time in history to gain consent from non-human communities through Aman’s appointment.

It is worth noting here that orangutans are the only known non-human mammals that are capable of communicating about the past. Humans and orangutans share 97% of the DNA and the latter are said to have a very high IQ too. They have proved to use their intelligence in many ways similar to human beings. Study has revealed that they can recognise words and understand speech. So, the company hopes #Aman can communicate to other orangutans in order to understand their past experiences and make the same known to the company. In turn the company can use this information to make amends for its past harms and plan more sustainable steps for future, keeping the wellbeing of the primates under consideration. Arrangements have been made for Aman to share her point of view in the board meetings by using a touch screen.

Orangutans are the world’s largest tree-dwelling primates and call the tropical forests their home. The Borneo Island (shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei) and the Sumatra Island are the only two places on earth where orangutans can be found. They spend most of their lives in these canopies, climbing from one branch to another. They disperse the seeds from the various fruits they eat and thereby help maintain the health and thickness of the rain forests.

The palm oil producers, for the sake of increasing their production and expansion of activities, are clearing the forests resulting in illegal logging and loss of habitat for these orangutans. The population of #orangutan in the Malaysian Borneo has dwindled over the last half century falling by about two-thirds due to logging and palm oil cultivation. This is the human-animal conflict under study here. On the one hand humans are expanding their businesses for more profits, on the other hand these endangered animals are losing their habitat as a result. #Palmoilproducers in the region have for long been under growing pressure to stop clearing forests and also make up for their past deforestation by reforesting those areas. Many companies have undertaken to do so. This step by the company in appointing an orangutan in the Board apparently seems to be a step in that direction. In this connection it is worth noting that this Sabah-based company, #MunKeeMaJikBhd, which has an annual capacity of 140,000 tonnes of crude palm oil that is produced from over 6,000 hectares of plantations. The company has cleared an estimated 4,000 hectares of orangutan habitat since its incorporation.

Board Diversity

#BoardDiversity is a hot topic even in India now. All companies required to have women directors in their Board have also not been compliant so far. Yet, the presence of women in Indian Boards is more visible than that in many countries including many developed countries of the West. It may be noted that as compared to 17.1% women holding Board positions in India, in Malaysia only 7% of board members are women. But the Sabah-based palm oil company claims to have achieved a rare feat in Board Diversity by going beyond just gender, age or even race by appointing a non-human to the Board.

Conclusion

This is the latest development and the reaction of worldwide #CorporateGovernance researchers and think-tanks in this connection is still awaited. But in my opinion, this appointment has to be strictly monitored by the government in order to ensure that this does not become another novel means of exploitation of voiceless stakeholders.


Image: Representative Image only

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