Rising demand for palm oil will decimate biodiversity unless producers
and politicians can work together to preserve as much remaining natural
forest as possible, ecologists have warned. A new study of the
potential ecological impact of various management strategies found that
very little can be done to make palm oil plantations more hospitable
for local birds and butterflies. The findings have major implications
for the booming market in biofuels and its impact on biodiversity.
Dr Lian Pin Koh of ETH Zürich looked at the number of birds and
butterflies in 15 palm oil plantations in East Sabah, Malaysia, on the
island of Borneo. He found that palm oil plantations supported between
one and 13 butterfly species, and between seven and 14 species of bird.
Previous research by other ecologists found at least 85 butterfly and
103 bird species in neighbouring undisturbed rain forest.
Management techniques — such as encouraging epiphytes, beneficial
plants or weed cover in palm oil plantations — increased species
richness by only 0.4 species for butterflies and 2.2 species for birds.
Preserving remaining natural forests — for example by creating forest
buffer zones between plantations — made a little more impact,
increasing species richness by 3.7 in the case of butterflies and 2.5
According to Dr Koh: "Rapid expansion of oil palm agriculture onto
forested lands, even logged forests, poses a significant threat to
biodiversity. This study shows that to maximise biodiversity in oil
palm plantations, the industry and local governments should work
together to preserve as much of the remaining natural forest as
possible, for example by creating forest buffer zones around oil palm
estates or protecting remaining patches of forest. Even then, the
industry’s impact on biodiversity is enormous."
The study is particularly important because it comes at time when
rising demand for both food and biofuels is putting mounting pressure
on biodiversity. "The rapid expansion of oil palm agriculture in
Southeast Asia raises serious concerns about its potential impact on
the region’s biodiversity. Unless future expansion of oil palm
agriculture is regulated, rising global demand is likely to exacerbate
the high rates of forest conversion in major oil palm-producing
countries," says Dr Koh.
Palm oil plantations currently cover around 13 million hectares
worldwide, producing 40 million tons a year. Malaysia and Indonesia
account for around 56% of this cultivated area and 80% of production.
Between 1960 and 2000, global palm oil production increased 10-fold
(from 2 million tons in 1960 to 24 million tons in 2000). As well as
biofuel, palm oil is used in food additives, cosmetics and industrial
Journal: Lian Pin Koh. Can palm oil plantations be made more hospitable for forest butterflies and birds? Journal of Applied Ecology, 9 July 2008 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2008.01491.x
by Wiley-Blackwell. July 2008.