Biodiversity and Oil Palm Project
Oil palm plantations are making a significant contribution to the ongoing disappearance of Indonesia's tropical forests and the unique assembly of species that call them home. However, the palm oil they produce is extremely profitable, 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 that can assist the palm oil
industry to reduce 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 rows of oil palms, but previous ZSL research has shown that it is often a different story for the patches of damaged habitat and unplanted land that usually remain on an oil palm plantation. This suggests that animals living in the surrounding forest, such as tapirs, tigers and clouded leopards, may use these patches of non-oil palm habitat to help them travel across the plantation to reach other areas of forest.
Since the expansion of oil palm plantations has both reduced the area of forest that remains and caused it to become fragmented, 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 practice and an urgent need for practical guidance that will enable them to do so.
In response to this the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004. Towards sustainable palm oil: a framework for action (3.2 MB) is the output of the symposium ‘Sustainable palm oil: challenges, a common vision and the way forwards’ held at ZSL in May 2011.
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'. This includes criteria, which address the impact that oil palm plantations can have on the environment, right from pollution by pesticides to damage caused to wildlife and habitats that are a high priority for conservation.
In order to abide by the RSPO's criteria, palm oil companies must take steps to conserve areas with 'High Conservation Value' on their existing plantations and ensure that new developments do not damage any such areas.
For this to be possible, it is first necessary to identify exactly which areas are of 'High Conservation Value'.
At present, pin pointing areas of habitat that are essential for the survival of the wide variety of species that may be present in the surrounding landscape and managing them effectively is proving extremely challenging. Practical guidance that will enable companies to identify and manage areas of natural habitat that are a priority for conservation is urgently needed.
The aim of ZSL's Oil Palm and Biodiversity Project
ZSL has been awarded a grant from the Biodiversity and Agricultural Commodities Programme to work with the palm oil industry and the RSPO to develop an effective tool for assessing biodiversity in and around oil palm plantations that is compatible with the RSPO's Biodiversity Criteria.
Match funding for the project has been provided by the oil palm company Wilmar International, whose plantations (one in Kalimantan and one in Sumatra) provide the focus for this research.
HCV monitoring protocol and software
High Conservation Values (HCVs) are a set of social and ecological values that are considered a high priority for conservation. They 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, however without regular and standardized monitoring, successful, efficient and robust management of HCVs is not possible.
Regular patrol monitoring of HCV areas in oil palm plantations can provide plantation managers with the information they need to mitigate the negative impacts of oil palm cultivation on biodiversity; however, current guidance on how to do this is limited. ZSL is developing a practical protocol with accompanying easy-to-use software and training modules to enable field staff to effectively monitor key variables in HCV areas in oil palm landscapes. It is intended to support an adaptive management approach for improved protection of biodiversity within plantations, whereby management actions are informed by the results of patrol monitoring.
Results from regular patrols are analysed by accompanying software and reported in clear and easily understandable graphs and maps.
Sustainable Palm Oil Platform
The Sustainable Palm Oil Platform website can be found at sustainablepalmoil.org . The issues surrounding palm oil are complex and difficult to understand. Communication between businesses along the length of the supply chain is poor, and there are low levels of awareness amongst the consumers and retailers who are driving demand for this versatile vegetable oil. This is often due to misleading information in the media as well as the complex structure and poor transparency of the palm oil supply chain itself.
In order to address this, ZSL has launched the Sustainable Palm oil Platform (SPP) with support from the RSPO, BACP, and the SAFE project. The SPP is a resource centre for information about sustainable palm oil that provides all stakeholders in the palm oil supply chain with the knowledge and tools they need to pursue more sustainable business practices.
The SPP is the first and only palm oil platform that is designed to meet the information needs of all stakeholders, from growers right through to consumers. It includes case studies, interviews, and links to useful and relevant websites, academic articles, and reports. The SPP also contains a range of resources and tools developed by ZSL to improve the monitoring and protection of High Conservation Value Areas in and around plantations and assist growers in meeting their commitments to the RSPO.