Addressing the Threat to Biodiversity from Oil Palm Agriculture

Title: Addressing the Threats to Biodiversity from Oil Palm Agriculture

Author: David S Wilcove and Lian Pin Koh

Biodiversity and Conservation (2010) 19:999-1007

DOI: 10.1007/s10531-009-9760-x


In this paper, the authors expressed concern that

the rapid pace of deforestation linked to palm oil development in Southeast

Asia, combined with the insufficient demands for certified sustainable palm oil

from the world’s largest purchasers, China and India would threaten and accelerate

the demise of its natural biodiversity. The countries affected will be

Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. The authors thus proposed a series of

“pressure points”, ranging from regulation policies to financial incentives/

disincentives to be applied to the palm oil industry (growers, producers,

users/retailers) to address the problem of biodiversity loss. All these

strategies have their strengths and weaknesses. Thus, a mixture of these is

advocated by the authors to help conserve the biodiversity found in the



Oil-palm agriculture is

the greatest immediate threat to biodiversity in Southeast Asia. Despite the

efforts of environmentalists, oil palm continues to expand across the tropics.

Those concerned about the impacts of oil palm on biodiversity must face some

harsh social, economic, and ecological realities: (i) oil palm has been a very

profitable crop; (ii) palm oil is used in so many products that simple, direct

actions, such as boycotts, are unlikely to succeed; (iii) there is currently

insufficient demand for certified sustainable palm oil and inadequate political

clout from environmental groups in two of the biggest markets for palm

oil—China and India—to slow the rate of forest conversion; and (iv) oil-palm

agriculture has improved the lives of poor rural communities in Southeast Asia

(although it has also disenfranchised some indigenous communities). To address

the threats posed by oil-palm agriculture to biodiversity, environmentalists

must change the behavior of the palm oil business through: (i) regulations to

curb undesirable activities (e.g., a ban on converting forests to oil palm);

(ii) financial incentives to promote desirable behavior (e.g., production of

certified, sustainable oil palm); (iii) financial disincentives designed to

discourage undesirable behavior (e.g., consumer pressure on major manufacturers

and retailers to use palm oil that does not come from plantations created at

the expense of forests); and (iv) the promotion of alternative, more biodiversity-friendly

uses of forested land that might otherwise be converted to oil palm. There is

no single best approach for dealing with the oil-palm crisis in Southeast Asia;

a mixture of regulations, incentives, and disincentives targeted at all sectors

of the oil-palm industry is necessary to protect the region’s rapidly

disappearing forests.


Comments / Observations

Overall, there are a few

key contentions in this paper that warrant further focus and elaboration. First

of all, the article did not mention that in Malaysia, forest areas can be designated

as agricultural land or state land for development purposes. These have been

alienated previously under Malaysia’s land use planning but the forested area

may not have been used yet. However, primary forests rich in biodiversity,

including HCV areas are gazetted as totally protected area and fully protected.

Examples are the national parks and animal sanctuaries. Secondly, plantation

companies seeking RSPO certification must undergo a HCV assessment before converting

new areas for planting. This ensures that all new plantings are done on areas

that do not encroach on HCV areas. Finally, conservationists, in their approach

to access the biodiversity threat from oil palm agriculture should also factor

in the value of forest as a natural resource of a country which can play a

significant part in contributing towards its development. Malaysia understands

very well the need for sustainable management of these resources. Thus, the

forest in Malaysia is alienated in a manner that will give it a balance in both

development and conservation. Hence, the best way forward is for conservationists

to work with government bodies and the plantation sector in identifying forests

with high conservation value for protection and those for development, rather than

to lobby for a total ban on forest conversion that would ultimately stun the economic

and social growth of developing nations in Southeast Asia, leaving millions of

people trapped in the web of poverty.


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