World's largest ecological experiment to examine impact of oil palm plantations

| 1st February 2011
Landscape devastated by palm oil

Palm oil plantations have destroyed large amounts of rainforest in South-East Asia

Ten-year project will look at whether setting-aside natural forests within oil palm plantations can save threatened species such as the Orang-utan, Pygmy Elephant and Clouded Leopard

Researchers are beginning a major study into the impact of oil palm plantations on biodiversity across an estimated 20,000 hectare site in Borneo - the largest project of its kind in the world.

The rapid expansion of oil palm, a hugely lucrative crop from which palm oil is produced, is being driven by demand for its use in food produce such as cakes as well as cosmetics and biofuels. The area of land used for oil palm has grown eight-fold in the last 40 years with 85 per cent of global exports coming from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Decades of logging and now plantations in both countries has left a mostly fragmented landscape of isolated patches of natural forest. The project, led by researchers from Imperial College London and the The Royal Society, will look at whether these isolated patches of forest are able to support and sustain high levels of biodiversity. It will reserach four sites: pristine tropical rainforest, logged forest, a palm oil plantation and a palm oil plantation site that has retained fragments of natural forest.

Lack of studies on plantations

Despite the widespread concern about deforestation and biodiversity loss, relatively few studies have looked in detail at the impact of oil palm plantations. Researchers hope evidence of biodiverse rich habitats will encourage the protection of fragments of natural rainforest, as well as providing new guidance to palm oil companies about how to minimise the environmental devastation of establishing new plantations.

'Everyone thinks they have an idea about quite how bad oil palm is for biodiversity but we don't actually know,' says scientific coordinator Dr Ed Turner, of the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. 'The question for us to answer is whether you may be able to maintain rather a lot of biodiversity by maintaining large fragments [of natural habitat] or whether it might be better to have those fragments dotted around the landscape.'

Dr Turner said the study would also look at the economic benefit forest fragments had on the surrounding oil palm plantations in terms of natural ecosystem services. 'Often you will see things living in the fragments that you won't find in the plantations - lots of bird species need somewhere to nest and they can't do that very effectively in plantations. If you have these forest fragments perhaps these birds will then spill out and search for insects in the plantations, which is going to be good for reducing herbivore outbreaks and possibly increase yield,' he said.

The palm oil industry has already shown a willingness to accept the findings. One of the world's largest producers Sime Darby is funding the study and the research team said it is in discussions about involving other companies, including Singapore-based Wilmer. The Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has also voiced his support. Speaking at the launch, he said by quantifying the impact of plantations on biodiversity and water systems the project would 'answer questions for Malaysians about how we operate palm oil plantations' and 'help make palm oil more sustainable'.

Among those also attending the launch, WWF said it suspected the study may find out that some species, such as elephants that require large spaces or orang-utans, are unable to survive in fragmented landscape. However, it said it was keen to see the findings accepted, whatever their outcome. 'If it can make strong recommendations for improving the design [of plantations] then it could make a difference to conservation efforts,'  said WWF Malaysia CEO Dr Dionysuis Sharma, 'but it can't just sit on the academic shelf - it must be implemented.'

Useful links

The Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) project

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