Biodiversity and Oil Palm

Talks were held on Tuesday 8th April at the Zoological Society of London, from scientific and industrial perspectives regarding the issue of conserving biodiversity within a climate of growth in the palm oil industry. Palm oil is grown widely in south-east Asia with the majority of exports coming from Malaysia and Indonesia. Palm oil is used in a range of different products from food additives, lubricants and cosmetics through to biofuels. The implications of the palm oil industry were discussed by Ben Phalan, a PhD student from Cambridge, Brian Dyer, LONSUM and Dr. Tom Maddox, ZSL:

Ben Phalan’s research into how oil palm plantations affect biodiversity has highlighted that:

  • species richness is significantly lower in palm oil plantations than indigenous rainforest
  • habitat specialists have declined in palm oil plantations whilst habitat generalists, non-forest species and species that feed on oil palm crops have done well
  • there is a much greater loss of forest and native species in palm oil plantations
  • detectability issues of many species mean that actual species loss may be higher than thought

Ben has also identified areaas where further research is required:

  • no published papers so far on the impacts of water pollution
  • the value of fragmented forests is unknown
  • the extent of bioaccumulation resulting from the use of rodenticides
  • the impact of pesticide usage on plantations

Brian Dyer is the managing director of operations for LONSUM, a company that grows and processes palm products in Indonesia. Brian:

  • claimed that “demand pull” rather than “consumer push” was the major driver of the palm oil industry and that offshore markets are the major consumer of palm oil
  • pointed out that there is a strong legislative framework that companies involved in the industry must abide by, (though it should be noted that more effective enforcement of legislation is required)
  • infomed the audience there are few NGOs in the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

Finally Dr Tom Maddox spoke about his research into the compatibility of oil palm and conservation stating that:

  • despite the wealth of knowledge indicating the harmful effects of palm oil plantations, there is a lack of knowledge into how to conserve species and areas of high conservation value alongside plantations
  • also noted a lack of enforcement of laws, and also that government is “woefully under represented” in the RSPO
  • increasing the strength of the economy is a priority of governments, and the palm oil industry is a huge source of revenue
  • areas within plantations could be developed for biodiversity, such as wildlife corridors between habitat fragments
  • increasing yields within existing plantations would mean that ‘small holders’ aren’t incentivised to clear more forest

An RSPO accreditation system is seen as a possible way forward in identifying ‘sustainable’ palm oil companies, or at least those that work to reduce their impact on biodiversity. Providing financial incentives to companies to retain forests is a possible option.