If notoriously non-biodiverse oil palm plantations are developed only on degraded land, they will cause less damage to biodiversity, advise researchers from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
“The biggest problem is that oil palm is often grown at the expense of extremely biodiverse forests,” said Douglas Sheil, who co-authored Oil palm plantations in the context of biodiversity conservation with CIFOR associate Erik Meijaard.
“The most important question we need to ask is what type of land we should use — how do we get companies to grow oil palm plantations on non-forest land,” Sheil said.
“If we use only degraded land the biodiversity impacts will be much smaller. We can protect biodiversity by stopping conversion of natural forest to oil palm. We can protect remaining natural forest on slopes and beside streams, for example, or regenerate it where needed.”
Avoidance of forest areas during planning and development of oil palm is not yet compulsory in Indonesia, Sheil added, and new legislation is needed to prevent further impacts on forest and forest services.
Forests are not only important for biodiversity, but are crucial in maintaining food chains, and the provision of forest products, and supporting services such as soil formation and nutrient cycling, climate regulation and water quality, to name just a few of the contributions described in The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
ONE TREE TO RULE THEM ALL
Monoculture tree plantations such as oil palm are greatly lacking in biodiversity. Oil palm plantations in equatorial Asia have a lower biodiversity value than most other tropical land uses, including other monocultures such as Acacia, Sheil and Meijaard report.
Researchers in the Indonesian province of Jambi recorded 75 percent less plant diversity in oil palm plantations than in natural forest. Because oil palm requires a lot of natural light, any other vegetation usually has to be cleared. Furthermore, oil palm plantations are structurally less complex than natural forests: they have a uniform tree-age structure, lower canopy, sparse undergrowth and less stable microclimate. They are, of course, subject to considerable human disturbance, and the 25- to 30-year rotation for clearing and replanting lessens floral and faunal diversity.
Another study in Jambi found that oil palm monocultures provide highly insufficient habitats for most terrestrial mammal species. Only four of the 40 mammal species detected in the 80,000 hectare (200,000 acre) landscape were regularly observed in plantations, none of which has a high conservation value. Generally, animals preferred even heavily degraded forests to oil palm plantations. Similarly, in Malaysia, researchers found that fewer than 20 of 75 mammal species encountered in primary forest also used oil palm plantations.
This is because wildlife species of higher conservation value generally have specific habitat requirements and low abundance, so they are dependent on forests, Sheil and Meijaard note.
Studies of birds have produced similar findings: oil palm attracted few bird species, whereas Acacia and albizia plantations resembled the avifauna of secondary forest regrowth.
MAKING “GREEN GOLD” GREENER
The palm oil industry is booming, and not without reason. “green gold”, as palm oil was dubbed by environmental group Friends of the Earth, makes a valuable contribution to economic development in tropical countries with low levels of welfare.
Oil palm also has higher productivity than other oil-producing crops such as canola and coconut.
“There are various other oil crops but none are as efficient as oil palm – especially on poorer soils,” Sheil said. “We can produce more oil on less land with oil palm.”
And there are ways to make the palm oil industry more supportive of biodiversity, Sheil and Meijaard note. They refer to the “wildlife-friendly” strategy of maintaining as much natural vegetation in oil palm plantations as possible.
“We are finding, for example, that in Sabah, Malaysia, every natural tree in an oil palm matrix is important. Orangutans will keep going back to even the smallest forest patches in mature oil palm plantations,” Meijaard said.
“It’s really important to understand that these small elements such protected forests and trees in oil palm can boost and sustain wildlife.”
Another option is to create wildlife corridors – stretches of trees running through plantations to connect forest areas. Riverine forests are especially important in this regard, Meijaard said.
“Often these are cleared for oil palm even though frequent flooding of these lands results in much reduced palm oil yields. Leaving such riverine forests rather than converting them makes economic and ecological sense.”
“So, yes, stop converting forest first of all, but if that has already happened, it’s really important to develop natural features within the landscape, such as planted corridors and protected hills,” he added.
“The next important step is to ensure that protected species, such as orangutans, are not killed. The amount of snaring in many parts of Borneo is wiping out vast wildlife populations and needs to be regulated and stopped where possible.”
“To reduce such impacts, there needs to be public awareness about the impacts of snaring on wildlife populations and welfare, as well as increased law enforcement,” Meijaard said.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
A related problem is that concession owners want large homogeneous areas to develop for plantations – an approach that is harmful to wildlife and environmental services because it fails to consider the variations in landscape and natural values.
But this is less of a problem if only land that is already degraded is used for oil palm, Sheil and Meijaard say. They recommend that oil palm plantations be cultivated only in the least biodiverse areas.
“However, such areas are often claimed by local people, and fair and informed consultation and compensation is needed to ensure that recommend strategies do not increase community conflicts,” Meijaard said.
“A complete rethink is needed of the optimal design of plantations, and the policies and regulations that are needed to ensure that this is indeed implemented,” said Meijaard, who also called for better management standards.
“Few companies have really tried to protect their environment. They are farmers at heart, and even if senior managers want to try a greener approach, staff only understand annual planting targets.”
The solution may be to find ways to persuade companies of the benefits of implementing biodiversity friendly practices, such as reduced social conflicts, reduced negative environmental impacts and increased access to green customers (important if companies are targeting markets in Australia, Europe and the United States).
“If we could show that this has ultimate financial benefits to companies, it would attract a lot more companies,” said Meijaard.
This research is carried out as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry. For more information on the issues discussed in this article, please contact Pablo Pacheco at firstname.lastname@example.org and Erik Meijaard at email@example.com.