Biodiversity and Oil Palm Project
The development and expansion of oil palm plantations are making a significant contribution to the ongoing disappearance of Indonesia's tropical forests and the unique species that call them home. However, the palm oil they produce is extremely profitable, and plays an important role in Indonesia’s development, meaning the stakes are high for both the industry and the diverse ecosystems that are under threat.
ZSL’s Biodiversity and Oil Palm project is working to develop practical guidance and tools that can assist the palm oil industry in reducing the impact it has on wildlife.
What is palm oil?
Whether you like it or not, you will probably have consumed a lot of palm oil in your lifetime. As the world's most popular vegetable oil, this versatile ingredient is hidden inside a huge number of the products you see on the supermarket shelf - from cereal bars and pizza to make-up and soap.
Often simply labelled as 'vegetable oil' on the label, a recent survey investigated just how many popular products contain palm oil. On top of this, the recent controversial craze for biofuels has increased demand even further.
Where does palm oil come from?
These brightly coloured fruits, which are rich in palm oil, grow on oil palm trees (Elaeis guineensis). Although oil palm is native to West Africa, the climate in Indonesia is perfect for growing this crop, making palm oil production a very lucrative business in Indonesia.
Consequently, oil palm plantations have expanded at a phenomenal pace over the past few decades, with the result that Indonesia recently became the biggest producer of palm oil in the world.
Oil palm plantations: death sentence or lifeline?
The debate surrounding the environmental and social impacts of the palm oil industry is an emotive but extremely complex one - it is impossible to label it as simply good or bad.
Whatever your viewpoint, there is little doubt that the expansion of oil palm plantations has played a leading role in the destruction of vast areas of rich tropical forest in Indonesia, which has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.
This is of enormous conservation concern as these forests are home to an extraordinary variety of species, from the Sumatran tiger to the rhinoceros hornbill, many of which are totally unique to Indonesia.
Despite this, the palm oil industry makes a vital contribution to the Indonesian economy, generating nearly $8 billion worth of exports and providing over 2 million jobs, mainly in rural areas. Abandoning palm oil production is not a viable option as it is one of the most productive and versatile vegetable oils available and the huge global demand for it provides a valuable revenue stream for Indonesia.
Although palm oil is important for the economy, expansion cannot continue if this is at the cost of Indonesia's natural ecosystems: the future of this country is highly dependent on the health of both.
The relationship between oil palm and biodiversity
Very little wildlife is able to live amongst the monoculture rows of oil palm plantations, but previous ZSL research has shown that this is not the case for the patches of damaged habitat and unplanted land that usually remain on plantations. Animals living in the surrounding forest, such as tapirs, tigers and clouded leopards, may still be able to use these remaining patches of habitat to help them travel across oil palm plantations and reach other areas of forest.
The expansion of oil palm plantations has both reduced the area of forest that remains and caused it to become fragmented. Therefore these connecting 'stepping stones' could provide a crucial life line to species whose future hangs in the balance.
What is being done to readdress the balance?
The environmental damage caused by oil palm plantations has been widely publicised in recent years, creating an incentive for palm oil companies to improve their practices and an urgent need for practical guidance that will enable them to do so.
In order to redress the negative impacts of palm oil, in 2004 the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established.
The RSPO provides a forum for discussion between concerned social and conservation NGOs and all sectors of the palm oil industry, aiming to promote a standard of palm oil production that respects people and the planet, but still makes a profit. Once a palm oil company has chosen to join the RSPO, they must satisfy various criteria before their palm oil can be certified as 'sustainable'. These criteria include a focus on the negative impact that an oil palm plantation has on the environment, from pesticide pollution to damage caused to wildlife and valuable habitats.
High Conservation Value (HCV) areas contain socially and ecologically valuable characteristics that make them a priority for conservation. These characteristics include the presence of endemic or endangered species, rare or endangered ecosystems, and resources and ecosystem services on which local communities depend for their livelihoods - all of which are significantly threatened by large-scale land conversion from forest to agriculture. In order to meet the criteria for RSPO certification, plantation owners are obliged to maintain and protect HCV areas within their concessions, and not to damage such areas through any new developments.
The aim of ZSL's Oil Palm and Biodiversity Project
ZSL’s Oil Palm and Biodiversity Project works across three continents focusing on a wide range of activities, all of which are designed to bring us closer to better environmental practices and an institutional environment where these practices become the norm.
Direct work with the industry
ZSL works together with companies to improve their practices, implement the use of environmental monitoring tools, train companies on HCV management and monitoring, and to develop new Best Management Practices.
It is the view of many that the certification system is not perfect, but it is a right step in the long journey to transform the industry and the market. ZSL sits on the Biodiversity and HCV Working Group, on the Compensation Task Force, the Principle and Criteria Review Task Force, the Indonesian HCV Task Force and the RSPO Executive Board. We represent (together with others) the wide group of environmental NGOs that are members of the RSPO. We work together with others to ensure the adoption of best practices and provide expert advice on technical environmental issues.
Government and policy work
In order to ensure that best practices for the industry are enforced and that the plantations are not allocated on land valuable for conservation, we must work together with governments. Our Cameroonian team is actively engaging with the Cameroonian and other African governments to ensure that conservation remains at the forefront of government policy. ZSL undertakes studies which identify barriers to sustainable production, trains stakeholders on good practices, raises awareness of environmental issues at the government level, and uses the knowledge we have gained in Asia, to ensure that development of oil palm in Africa lowers its negative impact.
Awareness and transparency work
For people to make better choices, they must be aware of the issues. We therefore work to develop awareness materials for the public, for the industry and for policy makers. The Sustainable Palm Oil Portal (www.sustainablepalmoil.org) brings together all stakeholders in the oil palm industry to share experiences, case studies as well as reports and scientific papers concerned with sustainability. Have a look at the “about us” page for many of our recent outputs and guidance!
In London, the team is hard at work developing a new, cutting edge project to increase transparency in the industry to allow investors to make better choices for their investment and support only companies with good environmental records. This will help ensure that investors are educated about the companies they invest in and able to channel money to support sustainability.