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Palm oil and biodiversity conservation

Oil palm dominated landscape in Myanmar. Credit: Zan Lunn/FFI.
Written by: Anna Lyons
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The unsustainable production and expansion of palm oil poses a major threat to the world’s tropical forests and peat lands. Over 85% of palm oil is grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, where the industry has been criticised for damaging the environment.

Rainforests rich in biodiversity, including the habitat of the iconic and endangered orang-utan, have been lost.

The degradation of peatlands, which store vast amounts of carbon, has contributed significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions.

The global demand for palm oil in food and cosmetics, and for use as biofuel, is expected to double by the middle of this century, pushing production to new frontiers across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Palm oil is now produced in over 20 countries worldwide, presenting a host of new challenges and opportunities.

Only by engaging all stakeholders – local, regional and national governments, companies, local communities and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – can we find a systemic solution to the palm oil problem.

If done right, palm oil industry development can be a positive driving force for jobs, food security and conservation.

International and national sustainability standards are making a difference to help embed legal, environmental, social and economic considerations into the palm oil supply chain.

Engaging where it matters

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) believes that working constructively with palm oil companies and the influencers of the palm oil sector is a vital tool in preventing environmental degradation and biodiversity loss on an industrial scale.

In geographies where palm oil poses threats and opportunities to our conservation goals, we are well placed to take action through our country teams and networks to make a positive change.

We promote sustainable production, enable better integrated landscape-level land-use planning and work to improve policies that enable conservation in oil palm dominated landscapes.

We have been engaging with the palm sector since 2007 to:

  • Improve the international sustainability standard of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and its practical application, particularly regarding biodiversity and High Conservation Values (HCV).
  • Work directly in country with governments, civil society and companies to support biodiversity conservation in oil palm landscapes with a focus on:

– West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

– Tanintharyi Region, Myanmar.

– Liberia.

  • Influence the finance sector through the Natural Value Initiative by exposing risks relating to dependencies on unsustainable supply chains in the agriculture, food and beverage, and retail sectors.
  • Engage in discussions, forums and symposia addressing challenges relating to sustainable palm oil.

Sustainable palm oil production is key to preventing habitat loss. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

The RSPO was formed in 2004 to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil products through credible global standards and engagement of supply chain stakeholders from business, government and the NGO sector.

By August 2014, 18% of global palm oil production was RSPO certified sustainable.

FFI has been a member of the RSPO since 2007 and has been active in Working Groups and RSPO processes in the following themes:

  • High Conservation Values: Expert co-ordinator of the Indonesia HCV Working Group, and member of the Biodiversity and HCV Working Group.
  • Smallholders: Member of the Smallholder Working Group and Indonesia Smallholder Working Group.
  • Principles and Criteria (P&C) review: Member of the Verification Working Group reviewing the 2007 P&C, co-chair of the Indonesia National Interpretation Task Force for the 2013 P&C, RSPO convenor for National Interpretations in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

There is still a long way to go to transform the sector and although the RSPO has room for improvement it is a useful tool to influence landscape-wide change.

FFI uses the standard to support companies to achieve RSPO certification, raise awareness on sustainability and conservation generally, and influence the activities of companies that do not have commitments to sustainability.

The standards provide guidance to improve individual farms and plantations; they work best for conservation when ‘go’ and ‘no-go’ areas for production have been identified through a landscape-level planning process.

Governments can help enable sustainable development by setting appropriate policies and promoting approaches required by these standards to move the industry forward.

High conservation values

The High Conservation Value (HCV) approach is required by many agricultural certification standards including the RSPO to identify and manage biological, ecological, social or cultural features of outstanding significance or critical importance.

This includes habitats for endangered species and carbon storage and the provision of freshwater for communities. In production landscapes the HCV approach provides a practical tool for natural resource management and land-use planning when properly applied. It can be used on farms, plantations or across a landscape to guide management.

HCV assessment and management lays the foundation for our practical conservation projects in oil palm landscapes. FFI experts and partners carry out quality HCV assessments on plantations for palm oil companies, and across landscapes for governments.

We provide support and technical assistance to develop National Interpretations of the HCV toolkit to make them relevant to a country’s specific context. We are active on the HCV Resource Network Steering Group.

Conservation and oil palm dominated landscapes in practice

West Kalimantan, Indonesia has been the focus of FFI’s orang-utan and peatland conservation projects since the 1990s.

Since 2007 we have mobilised support from local government agencies, NGOs, local communities and forestry and palm oil companies such as Cargill to identify and assess HCV at concession and landscape levels in two districts. The results have been integrated into district spatial plans to help avoid palm oil and other development on land with HCV.

To support long-term management of HCV we have helped to change local legal regulation, working to designate 22 village forests which secure forest against conversion and ensure benefits to local communities.

We are also investigating carbon-financing possibilities for communities and companies.

Tanintharyi Region, Myanmar is home to 2.5 million hectares of largely intact Sundaic lowland forest. This is the location of Myanmar’s growing palm oil industry. Concepts of sustainability are new and recent reforms in the country mean there is a window of opportunity for sustainable palm oil sector development but also potential for rapid change.

We are increasing knowledge and capacity to use HCV in landscape-level land-use planning and raising awareness about sustainable palm oil among companies and government to inform policy and practice.

For more information please see the information sheet (downloads as pdf) and this recent news story.

Liberia is home to large sections of globally important Upper Guinean lowland forest where FFI has worked since 1997.

In 2011, FFI recognised an opportunity to influence the emerging palm oil sector in Liberia. We developed the Liberian National Initiative, which influenced the designation of 500,000 hectares of new oil palm concessions and supported the sustainable development of the country’s palm oil sector.

FFI also convened the National Interpretation of the RSPO P&C for Liberia and Sierra Leone and was involved in the National Interpretation of the HCV toolkit for Liberia.

Finance sector

The Natural Value Initiative, a collaboration of finance and business organisations led by FFI, provides research findings and a toolkit to enable investors in the agriculture, food and beverage and retail sectors to understand and manage the impacts of their investments on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Our approach

To meet our conservation goals, FFI works directly with companies that commit to moving towards sustainable and responsible production.

We endeavour to create enabling conditions for conservation and sustainable production in oil palm dominated landscapes whilst limiting the negative impacts of poor performers through policy and planning improvements.

Our approaches are context appropriate and lead to innovative solutions as a result of working together.

Written by
Anna Lyons

Anna is a programme manager within Fauna & Flora International’s Business & Biodiversity team, her focus and interest is agricultural commodities. Anna is based out of FFI’s Singapore office, supporting the Asia-Pacific country programmes in their business related activities, particularly Cambodia and Indonesia. She has made frequent visits to Indonesia since her BSc thesis research first took her to the tropical forests of Indonesian Borneo in 2002, where she remained on and off for a further two years. Now, amongst other things, Anna has the tough task of overseeing FFI’s work on the tropical island paradise of Lombok. Anna’s background is in international development and natural resource management, she has an MSc from Oxford in related subjects, and has been working with the British American Tobacco Biodiversity Partnership, an NGO-Private Sector collaboration, since 2007 and continues to do so following her move to FFI in 2009.

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“To meet our conservation goals, FFI works directly with companies that commit to moving towards sustainable and responsible production of palm oil.”

Anna Lyons

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