Tuesday, 11 September 2007

NGOs should use palm oil to drive conservation

NGOs should use palm oil to drive conservation

Source: Mongabay - August 29, 2007

Environmentalists view the expansion of oil palm plantations in southeast
Asia as one of the greatest threats to the region's forests and
biodiversity. Campaigners say oil palm is driving the conversion of tens of
thousands of hectares of peatlands and lowland forest in Indonesia and
Malaysia, putting wildlife at risk, increasing the vulnerability of the
forests to fires, and triggering large emissions of greenhouse gases.
Pressure from these groups have in recent months convinced European
policymakers to reconsider sourcing energy crop production to the region.

Palm oil producers are fighting back, accusing the West of hypocrisy for
criticizing their production while overlooking environmental harm caused by
biofuel production in other parts of the world, including Amazonia (soy
biodiesel and sugar cane ethanol), Europe (rapeseed), and the United States
(corn ethanol).

Now a new paper calls for a truce, proposing that conservationists work
with palm oil producers to protect particularly important areas of

Writing in Nature, Lian Pin Koh and David S. Wilcove from Princeton
University, argue that the high yield and high prices that make oil palm so
attractive "could be turned to a biodiversity advantage." They suggest that
green groups could buy small tracts of existing oil palm plantations and
use the revenue they generate to acquire land to establish a network of
privately-owned nature reserves for biodiversity conservation.

"A typical mature oil-palm plantation in Sabah, Malaysia, generates an
annual net profit of roughly $2,000 per hectare," write the authors. "Based
on the current price of $12,500 per hectare for oil palm-cultivated land,
the capital investment could be recovered in just 6 years. After this
initial period, a 5,000-hectare oil palm plantation could generate annual
profits amounting to some $10 million, which could be used to acquire 1,800
hectares of forested land annually to be set aside as private nature

Koh and Wilcove say the scheme would require collaboration between "large
conservation donor groups to fund the initial investments and with local
oil-palm companies for their expertise in running the plantations," but
that the relationship could be a "win-win partnership... because NGOs would
be able to protect forests using the oil palm revenue and the companies
would be able to enhance their corporate image to satisfy
environmentally-conscious consumers."

"Because such oil-palm plantations would be motivated mainly by
conservation objectives, they could provide the industry with leadership
for the sustainable production of palm oil through environmentally-friendly
management practices," they continue. "This could also drive the
development of a premium market for sustainable oil-palm products and
thereby generate economic incentives for more palm-oil producers to adopt
sustainable practices."

Koh and Wilcove appear to be optimistic that this price premium, as well as
the "green" marketing benefits, can overcome the inherent conflict of
interest between the two groups. After all, why would producers want to
help set up direct competitors and fund opposition to oil palm expansion
unless they were sure to get something tangible in return?

CITATION: Lian Pin Koh and David S. Wilcove (2007). Cashing in palm oil for
conservation. Nature Vol 448|30 August 2007