Researchers urge collaboration between NGOs, corporations
At first the forest seems still, with only the sounds of busy insects and slight movement of wind betraying activity in the patchy undergrowth. Then, curiously, a Malay civet (Viverra tangalunga), an animal resembling half cat and half weasel, scampers out to claim its prize: a stick smeared with margarine and honey. CLICK! Sensing the animal’s body heat, a camera trap strapped to a nearby tree captures an image of this creature’s inquisitive behavior.
After more than four and a half years of camera trap footage, the results are encouraging: 36 mammal species, of which more than half are legally protected, are prospering in this most surprising of spots: an oil palm plantation in the province of East Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo.
A pair of Malay civets (Viverra tangalunga) enjoying a lure stick smeared with margarine and honey set in front the camera trap. Photo courtesy of PT REA Kaltim Conservation Project.
In a recent study published in the Journal of Indonesian Natural History, co-authors Deni Wahyudi and Rob Stuebing used camera traps to inventory mammal populations throughout the oil palm plantations and designated conservation reserves set aside by the palm oil company PT REA Kaltim. The study took place throughout REA Kaltim’s 30,000-hectare oil palm plantation, of which 18 percent, or over 5,000 hectares, have been kept as conservation reserves comprised of forests along rivers, peatlands, and hills. Among the mammals recorded were several small populations of orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus, listed as Endangered by the IUCN), sun bears (Helarctos malayanus, listed as Vulnerable) and flat headed cats (Prionailurus planiceps, listed as Threatened). The sightings occurred primarily in reserve areas, which plantations are legally required to set aside for conservation.
The results of the study suggest that important levels of biodiversity can be maintained within human modified landscapes if appropriate measures are taken to conserve key areas of habitat.
A publicly listed company from the U.K. and traded on the main market of the London Stock Exchange, REA acquired its first oil palm concession, PT. REA Kaltim Plantations, in East Kalimantan, Indonesia, in the early 1990s. The group has since expanded to other districts and now holds title to six oil palm concessions in East Kalimantan and three mills, two of which have methane capture facilities.
Palm oil is used as an ingredient in everything from donuts to shampoo, and has been hugely criticized for spurring massive deforestation throughout the tropics. Replacing huge tracts of rainforest with monoculture plantations of this African palm (Elaeis guineensis) has had many negative impacts on biodiversity, indigenous cultures, and the global climate. In Indonesia, the world’s top palm oil producer, expanding oil palm plantations have led to abuses of indigenous land rights and conversion of peat lands, which has released huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere.
A curious orangutan male peers into a camera trap in a conservation reserve in PT REA’s holdings. Photo courtesy of PT REA Kaltim Conservation Project.
Stuebing is quick to condemn development practices, in forests are felled and wildlife killed to make room for oil palm plantations.
“Numerous companies have entered Indonesia since PT. REA Kaltim established its first oil palm plantation in East Kalimantan in the early 1990s,” he said. “Most showed a less than stellar environmental ethic. Some were involved in killing orangutans and basically scorched the earth [due to] land clearing practices. In other words, old habits and traditions are in dire need of reform.”
Yet, Stuebing believes that these very companies are key to conservation efforts in the area.
“Companies are both intellectually and technically more capable of implementing a robust conservation program within their boundaries than any temporary fix by a visiting NGO or even RSPO,” he said. “The industry is currently full of (sometimes unsuitable or unwise) habits and traditions dating back to colonial times when forests were vast and oil palm plantations were few.”
Stuebing reaffirmed his call for collaboration between conservation organizations and corporations on environmental issues, saying that “in view of the continuous modification of the landscape, companies such as plantations and mining must be encouraged to view biodiversity conservation as a rational and necessary component of their operational development.“
According to Stuebing, collaboration is a challenging endeavor in and of itself, with “the most difficult [period being] the first six months, persuading the senior management not to oppose NGOs, but to improve management. We had insisted that if the company used its resources to integrate conservation into its operations, that the NGOs would be welcome to visit anytime to observe the REA KON program and to provide advice.”
Although the need for critical investigation of corporate practice is ever-present, opportunities for cooperation are growing as massive companies such as Unilever, Nestlé, and Walmart are increasingly pledging to more sustainable practices. The problems are many and the challenges great. However, according to Stuebing, collaboration is key to making a difference.
“Times have changed,” Stuebing said. “We need some new traditions, and the individual companies are the only entities capable of achieving that.”
Four decades of forest persistence, clearance and logging on Borneo. Forest (dark green) and non-forest (white) in year 1973, and residual clouds (cyan) in Panel A. Areas of forest loss during 1973–2010 (red) in Panel B. Primary logging roads from 1973–2010 (yellow lines) in Panel C. Remaining intact forest (dark green), remaining logged forest (light green), and industrial oil palm and timber plantations (Black) in year 2010 in Panel D. Map and caption courtesy of the authors. Click to enlarge
- Wahyudi, D., & Stuebing, R. Camera trapping as a conservation tool in a mixed-use landscape in East Kalimantan. Indonesian Natural History, 37.
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