Biodiversity and Palm Oil – A Pressing Issue

It’s no secret that palm oil production has caused the destruction of rainforests around the world. The industry has been especially damaging in Indonesia and Malaysia, which together produce 90% of the world’s palm oil. I have witnessed this first-hand in my frequent trips to Asia.

On the other hand, palm oil is an attractive commodity. It is an important source of income for many people in developing countries. Compared to other vegetable oils it yields the highest volume per hectare of land. And it is a favourite ingredient in food, cosmetics and fuel.

The global demand for palm oil is expected to double by the middle of this century with Chinese and Indian markets dominating the expansion. Supply is expanding from Asia to Africa.

A global conundrum

Today we have a window of opportunity to learn from past experience – we must avoid replicating the environmental destruction seen in Asia on a different and biodiverse continent.

So how do we balance the growing demand for this valuable commodity with biodiversity protection? What role can Fauna & Flora International play to address this conundrum?

I believe our best asset is our practical experience and local partners on the ground. Our teams know the intricacies of forest conservation in Indonesia and Liberia, two countries where we are actively working to protect biodiversity in palm oil landscapes.

Building consensus on the issues

Earlier this year I attended a number of events in the UK to discuss environmental issues surrounding the palm oil industry. At a workshop hosted by Synchronicity Earth, 20 NGOs active in the palm sector gathered to discuss the priorities for action and what can be done.

Although many challenges remain, it is clear that there is growing consensus on what these are. Many tools and approaches already exist to address them.

Fauna & Flora International is already developing practical solutions to some of the most pressing challenges raised; the need for better land-use planning, working with governments to inform policy frameworks, focusing on maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes, and helping refine the tools needed to assess these landscapes and better inform decision-making processes.

The challenges below are the three I feel most pertinent to Fauna & Flora International as we push for improvements in the palm oil sector.

How do we ensure sustainable management of High Conservation Value areas within oil palm concessions?

The Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – a global forum of NGOs and palm oil companies – requires companies to protect High Conservation Value (HCV) areas within their concessions to obtain RSPO certification.

HCV areas are sites which contain rare or threatened species or ecosystems, provide critical environmental services such as watershed protection and/or support basic local livelihoods and culture.

This is easier said than done. In Indonesia and other countries, concessions are frequently reallocated if not actively managed for agriculture.  If a company does keep the HCV area on the concession it can be costly. Companies need an incentive to protect them.

One way we are tackling this is to combine HCV assessment, district level land use planning, and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) financing mechanisms to enable biodiversity conservation in HCV areas.

How do we make palm oil companies sustainable whether they are RSPO members or not?

Consumers, governments and sector leaders have woken up to the sustainability issues surrounding palm oil. Increasingly stringent demands and regulation of the palm oil sector are inevitable.

Apart from our participation in RSPO working groups, Fauna & Flora International also works with leading companies to pilot methods and build capacity to meet the RSPO Principles & Criteria. Other companies can learn from the results.

The reality however, is that even Corporate Social Responsibility departments within leading companies may face resistance from their operational departments who must pay for costly and time consuming assessments. We work hard to show the benefits of adhering to RSPO guidelines.

Of course there are many companies who have no intention of becoming sustainable. That’s where our work with governments comes in.

How do we support governments to ensure sustainable development of the palm oil sector?

It is vital that government departments work together to design policies which encourage the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem services. For example allocating degraded land rather than pristine forest for concession development.

Fauna & Flora International is building the capacity of government representatives at local, district and national levels, and providing ongoing technical support to help them better plan oil palm sector development.  This way we can help affect all oil palm development in a landscape, whether RSPO member companies or not, as well as concessions allocated for other uses too.

We also help provide up to date information on which to base decisions, and engage in the planning process.

The road ahead

Fauna & Flora International will continue to put our expertise, experience and passion for conservation to the test in engaging with the palm oil sector. It is not easy but accepting the palm oil sector continues to grow, it is imperative that it does so without further biodiversity loss.

We have come a long way, but there is much more that needs to be done, and fast. The recent meetings were a good chance to share what Fauna & Flora International has learned, to look for opportunities for greater collaboration and seek common solutions with others working on the same problems to channel efforts into a sustainable future for palm oil and where companies can help protect biodiversity.

Learn more about Fauna & Flora International’s work with the palm oil sector.

Download the Final Report on the Synchronicity Earth workshop (PDF).