Biodiversity on oil palm estates


Study finds that plantations provide habitat and fodder for myriad species.

AS an expert in environment and agriculture, I have been studying and working with oil palm for many years.

I have worked with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and many other sustainability-focused initiatives, and the question of protecting biodiversity is always at the top of people’s minds.

A question many people ask me is whether biodiversity is well-protected within the palm oil industry? Are the small producers, for example, advancing effectively towards greater sustainability?

First, we must start by looking at the context. In terms of productivity gains, it is worth recalling that for the same amount of vegetable oil produced, oil palm needs eight to 10 times less surface area than other perennial oilseed crops.

The direct consequence is that because it requires less space, the cultivation of oil palm allows small producers to preserve more natural areas, and therefore, more biodiversity.

Then, if one focuses on the plantation itself compared to other crops, it is clear that oil palm hosts more biodiversity. As a tree plant, it creates a habitat for dozens of plant and animal species. Epiphytic plants develop there harmoniously and many insects (ants, etc) find an environment there, which is favourable to their development. This is far more biodiverse than crops such as soy or canola.

There have been numerous studies examining biodiversity on oil palm plantations.

In Africa, for example, it has been well documented that oil palm provides edible resources for: chimpanzee species, Thomas’s rope squirrels, white-throated bee-eaters (Merops albicollis), southern yellow-billed hornbills and oil palm vultures.

In Latin America, black vultures (Coragyps stratus) and white-faced capuchins (Cebus capucinus) are among the species living around and within oil palm plantations.

In South-East Asia, the plant also provides a range of uses and habitats.

According to one study in Sumatra, 38 non-domesticated mammals were found using oil palm plantations.

The report also noted that almost two-thirds of these have an important conservation value or are protected under national law, and 25% are listed as vulnerable or higher on International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red lists.

A study on the Malaysian peninsula suggested a thriving population of the banded pig (Sus scrofa vittatus). Other animal life includes long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) and pig-tailed macaques (Macaca nemestrina).

Bird species such as Pycnonotus goiavier, Prinia spp, Parus major, Copsychus saularis and Halcyon smyrnensis are all visitors to oil palm plantations (Desmier de Chenon and Susanto, 2006), as well as threatened species such as blood pythons (Python brongersmai) and short-tailed pythons (Python curtus).

Even the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that: “When combined with agroforestry, palm oil plantations can increase food production locally and have a positive impact on biodiversity.”

When it comes to precautionary measures now, we see that the sector has developed a unique process and made considerable efforts for the preservation and development of biodiversity. RSPO’s Principles and Criteria for example, pay significant attention to the preservation of biodiversity and natural resources (land, energy, air, water).

Soil cover by leguminous plants and the planting ban on slopes that are too steep, limiting erosion and soil destruction, are examples. The use of biofuels (shells and fibre from the processing itself) to produce electricity and steam, limits the use of fossil fuels to a minimum.

Oil palm plantations need few pesticides and chemical fertilisers to be healthy and profitable. In addition, farmers have developed integrated pest management techniques (pheromones to trap insects, creating attractive hedges and bushes that can serve as habitat for pest predators, maintaining an owl nest every 25ha to promote the circulation of birds of prey that feed on rats, etc).

Thus, oil production helps protect surface water and groundwater resources.

High efficiency levels allow the industry to focus on productivity in small areas, a culture that is naturally home to many species, with strict protective measures implemented by the sector.

I’ll be visiting Malaysia to conduct further field research on the biodiversity in oil palm plantations, and the wider environmental conservation efforts undertaken in the country. I’ll be talking to companies, NGOs, officials, and other stakeholders, and I will be updating details of my findings.

Pierre Bois d’Enghien is an agronomist and environmental expert who has worked with many of Europe’s leading players in plantations and agricultural development. Bois d’Enghien has a Master’s degree in Environmental Management, and currently works with Socfin, SIAT and Feronia as well as other agricultural leaders. He also serves as an auditor to the RSPO. Bois d’Enghien is an author and commentator in Europe on environmental matters, including for major newspapers. He travels widely in his role as an agronomist and consultant, including Africa and South-East Asia.