Conservation news

Connected forests key to more sustainable palm oil industry: report

Google Earth satellite image showing a forest fragment in a deforested landscape in Rondonia, Brazil.

Google Earth satellite image showing a forest fragment in a deforested landscape in Rondonia, Brazil.

  • A new report says stronger criteria are needed to ensure that high-quality forested areas remain intact.
  • Keeping other forested areas connected while encouraging the movement of vulnerable species is crucial, say the researchers.
  • The key, they say, is to involve the palm oil industry – worth billions of dollars – particularly in high-producing countries with tropical forest like Indonesia.

Researchers in the U.K. are calling for stronger criteria to ensure that high-quality forested areas remain intact, even if they run through oil palm plantations. The key, they say, is to keep other areas of forest connected and encourage movement of vulnerable species.

The findings were published in a study last month by researchers from the University of York in the U.K. in the Journal of Applied Ecology. The researchers say there could be a more sustainable way for the industry to evolve if emphasis is placed on keeping high conservation value areas (HCVAs) connected.

The palm oil industry is worth billions of dollars to the economies of key producing countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, but with forests being cleared to make way for plantations, concerns over the devastating impact on the environment, and the fragile forest ecosystems that support a number of species, have led to calls for bans on the product.

The researchers found that it’s not enough to simply have sizeable tracts of forest if they are fragmented throughout oil palm plantations; this means some species remain isolated. So the aim is for plantations certified by the Malaysia-based NGO Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to be held to the organization’s new guidelines as a standard.

Google Earth images showing forest fragments in a deforested landscape in Rio Omerê, Rondônia, Brazil.

“Connections between forest fragments in oil palm plantations to other areas of forest and remaining natural habitat are essential for species to be able to move freely – something that is increasingly important as species face growing pressure to seek out alternative habitat due to continued land-use and climate change,” a news release that accompanied the report said.

Sarah Scriven, one of the co-authors of the study, told Mongabay that so-called forest corridors or stepping stone patches “may facilitate the movement of forest species through the surrounding plantation matrix.” Scriven noted that the key is a coordinated approach. “[These plantations] may otherwise act as a barrier to movement between the forest set aside and other areas of forest within the wider landscape,” Scriven said.

As for tracking tangible change on certified plantations in the future, Scriven said she is hopeful that RSPO guidelines will build upon criteria released in November 2018, which provide “some guidance for maintaining landscape connectivity.”

She said it will be easier to improve existing conservation areas, since the actual process of reconnecting forest areas “may require converting some of the planted area back into forest.” She notes that continued dialogue with the roundtable will be an important factor in encouraging the work to move forward. Potential beneficiaries could include orangutans, as well as various birds, bats and insects.

An edge of an Amazon forest fragment in Brazil. Forest fragmentation and deforestation may ultimately prove to be more critical to the future of tropical forests than climate change, according to some scientists. “Negative synergies” between deforestation, climate change and forest fires point to a tipping point for the Amazon to “flip to a non-forest ecosystem” at 20-25 percent deforestation, according to tropical biologist Tom Lovejoy and climate scientist Carlos Nobre. Image by Rhett A, Butler / Mongabay.

Citation:

Scriven, S. A., Carlson, K. M., Hodgson, J. A., McClean, C. J., Heilmayr, R., Lucey, J. M., & Hill, J. K. (2019). Testing the benefits of conservation set‐asides for improved habitat connectivity in tropical agricultural landscapes. Journal of Applied Ecology00, 1-12. doi:10.1111/1365-2664.13472