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Palm oil may be single most immediate threat to the greatest number of species

Efforts to slow the rapid expansion of oil palm plantations at the expense of natural forests across Southeast Asia are being hindered by industry-sponsored disinformation campaigns, argue scientists writing in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. The authors, Lian Pin Koh and David S. Wilcove, say that palm oil may constitute the “single most immediate threat to the greatest number of species” by driving the conversion of biologically rich ecosystems — including lowland rainforests and peatlands.

“Why have efforts by conservationists failed to halt the expansion of oil palm plantations at the expense of tropical forests? We contend that part of the reason could be the aggressive public relations campaigns undertaken by the oil palm industry to promote public acceptance of palm oil and to dismiss the concerns of conservation biologists and environmentalists,” Koh and Wilcove write. “It is not unlike the campaign that some energy companies waged against efforts to curb global climate change.”

Under fire from environmental groups, which are now pushing for consumer boycotts of products containing palm oil in some markets, industry groups have launched marketing campaigns to depict palm oil as a environmentally benign — or even ecologically beneficial — product. Despite substantial scientific evidence to the contrary, the industry claims that expansion has not occurred in natural forest areas and that oil palm plantations sequester more carbon than rainforests.

Ultimately, pressure on the industry to improve environmental performance will hinge on whether environmentalists can overcome this propaganda to convince consumers and governments on the merits of eco-friendly palm oil. Until then, biodiversity will continue to be at risk from the palm oil industry, conclude Koh and Wilcove.

“To effectively mitigate the threats of oil palm to biodiversity, conservationists need to persuade consumers to continue to demand both greater transparency in land-use decisions by governments and greater environmental accountability from oil palm producers.”

“A prohibition on the conversion of primary or secondary forests to oil palm is urgently needed to safeguard tropical biodiversity. Until that happens, oil palm might well be the single most immediate threat to the greatest number of species.”

Lian Pin Koh and David S. Wilcove. Oil palm: disinformation enables deforestation. Trends in Ecology and Evolution Vol.24 No.2

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