Site icon Conservation news

Palm oil boycott an unrealistic approach to conserving biodiversity

Palm oil boycott an unrealistic approach to conserving biodiversity

Palm oil boycott an unrealistic approach to conserving biodiversity
Rhett Butler,
April 15, 2008

Boycotting palm oil produced in Southeast Asia in an “unrealistic” and “ineffective” approach to conserving the region’s fast-disappearing rainforests, said a Princeton University researcher speaking at a conference on the sustainability of palm oil. Instead, NGOs should focus on engaging and working with the palm oil industry to reduce its impact on the environment.

Addressing the first International Palm Oil Sustainability Conference in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, Princeton biologist Dr. David S. Wilcove said that the palm oil industry is too important to the economies of Indonesia and Malaysia to justify blanket import bans on the edible oil used in food, cosmetics, industrial products, and biodiesel. The palm oil industry contributes to health, education, and infrastructure in rural areas.

“In the context of its tremendous economic importance, it must be recognized that the notion of boycotting palm oil is impractical and unrealistic. It is simply not an approach that will work.”

While the economic gains from palm oil are substantial, Wilcove said they come at the expense of biological diversity. Still Wilcove was hopeful that increasing awareness of environmental issues among oil palm producers and innovative partnerships could reduce the worst outcomes for biodiversity in the region. He said that small measures to increase species richness could have unintended benefits for palm planters, although such measures would not be sufficient to prevent the loss of many species.

Creating plantations that are friendlier to biodiversity

Oil palm plantations and heavily logged forest near Lahad Datu, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

In a study that looked at the diversity of birds and butterflies in primary forests, logged forests, rubber plantations, and oil palm plantations, Wilcove and his Princeton colleague Dr. Lian Pin Koh found the conversion of virgin rainforest to oil palm results in steep declines in species richness.

“We found a 77 percent decline in forest bird species upon the conversion of old-growth forest to oil palm plantations. For butterflies, the decline was 83 percent,” he explained. “By comparison, 30 years after logging secondary forest retained roughly 80 percent of the original forest species.”

Conversion of existing cropland to oil palm had a much smaller impact, resulting in a 14 percent decline in the remaining forest bird species. Wilcove said the results offered insight into ways to reduce biodiversity loss from future plantation expansion.

“The focus of new oil palm establishment should be on degraded and cultivated lands like grasslands and rubber plantations,” he said. “Both primary and secondary forests are important for the persistence of biodiversity.”

Wilcove said that oil palm plantations located near patches of natural forest had greater numbers of bird and butterfly species. Further, plantations that featured ground cover and epiphytes had still more biodiversity. In other words, oil palm plantations that more closely resembled forests had greater species richness. Still, while such measures can boost biodiversity in oil palm plantations, they are not enough to offset losses.

Oil palm plantations near Lahad Datu, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

In light of the findings, Wilcove argued that a strategic partnership between environmentalists and a palm oil firm could drive more extensive forest protection efforts.

Wilcove said that a conservation group could establish an oil palm plantation on a rubber plantation and enter into an agreement with a palm oil company to manage the estate. The firm would be paid to cover its operating costs, but profits from the sales of palm oil would go towards the acquisition of forestland for protection. The scheme could potentially be used to develop a premium market for biodiversity-friendly palm oil.

By his and Koh’s estimates, a hypothetical 2,000-hectare (5,000-acre) plantation could be acquired for $25M (using last year’s prices). After six years, the costs of the plantation would be recouped. For its remaining life the estate would generate $83M in profit. These proceeds could be used to acquire 14,5000 ha of forest.

By comparison, using the $25M instead to buy forest directly at the outset would save only 4,000 hectares.

Wilcove said that while no conservation organizations have adopted this strategy, there is evidence of increased dialogue between conservationists and the palm oil industry, including recent collaboration between Cargill and Conservation International in Papua New Guinea and WWF’s support of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry-led sustainability initiative.

“I regard these developments as positive,” he said. “I hope to see further examples in coming years.”

Dividends from biodiversity

Orangutan in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Beyond the potential of offering a product that does less damage to the natural resource base for future generations, Wilcove said the palm oil industry may benefit from higher levels of biodiversity by reducing the need for pest management. Wilcove cited a study by Koh that used exclusion cages to show that birds play an important role in controlling oil palm pests.

“Birds, and perhaps bats, provided this important ecosystem service,” he said, cautioning that the results are preliminary and more follow up is needed. “The more birds there are, the greater the benefit to oil palms… Enhanced bird diversity within a plantation might be beneficial to oil palm production.”

Many oil palm plantations already know the value of biodiversity for this function. A technique known as integrated pest management (IPM) relies on insects, snakes, and barn owls to control damaging oil palm pests, reducing the need for potentially toxic pesticides.

In order to maintain healthy populations of beneficial birds and pest predators, “oil palm growers should protect or restore patches of natural forest including riverine buffer zones and marginal habitats within oil palm plantations and they should continue current biodiversity enhancement measures involving beneficial plants, leguminous cover crops, and ferns within plantations,” Wilcove explained, adding that corridors of habitat along waterways would also help prevent erosion. “Doing so many not only lower production costs but could also reduce the damaging effects of pesticides to both plantation workers and the environment, as well as satisfy a growing consumer preference for oil palm products produced through environmentally-friendly practices.”

“Oil palm producers need biodiversity, and people need palm oil. Therefore, conflicts between oil palm expansion and biodiversity conservation will not be solved by each side portraying the other as villains.” he said. “Instead, both sides must talk to each other and search for innovative solutions to these issues.”

Exit mobile version