Harmful consequences of Palm Oil plantations for Biodiversity – Zooming in on ‘Forest Fragmentation’
You might have heard that the production of palm oil is very damaging to our global environment and tropical biodiversity. Acres of rainforest are cleared every hour, displacing or killing the many animals who live in them, including the critically endangered Bornean and Sumatran orangutan, Sumatran tiger, and the endangered proboscis monkey. There is another problem with the commercial palm oil industry, and it has a major effect on biodiversity, but fewer people know about it. It is the insidious problem of forest fragmentation.
Huge chunks of rainforest are being converted into palm oil plantations every hour, leaving pieces of rainforest remaining in between them. These rainforest patches are often not connected to each other, but rather separated by acres of plantations. This means that the animals who are living in these pieces are trapped. While these ‘refuges’ do provide forest shelter, food, nesting sites and other life requirements, the pieces are often small and over-crowded with refugee wildlife, and don’t provide the animals with the sufficient habitat needed to survive. In addition, these forest pieces are increasingly exposed to harmful forest ‘edge effects’ such as wind, sunlight, desiccation and fire.
Wild orangutans living in such fragments are cut off from each other and suffer from increased physiological stress, leading to reduced reproduction and a decline in orangutan populations. Orangutans trapped in small fragments will cross the massive palm oil plantations in search for food or a mating partner. Young orangutan males need to be able to travel over large distances to establish long-term residence in order to more successfully mate or even encounter and monitor receptive females. This might lead to confrontations with humans, in which the orangutan often gets killed. An added danger, the roads built to access the palm oil plantations provide illegal hunters and poachers easy access to the fragmented forest pieces, contributing to a population decline. A 2011 study estimated that about 2,540 orangutans are killed in human-orangutan confrontations each year.
So, what can we do about this? Protecting the fragments is essential, as is protecting, restoring, and creating corridors of primary forest between fragments, giving wildlife the opportunity to move from one piece to another. Ideally, these ‘forest stepping-stones’ would lead to larger protected forested areas.
Currently, the ‘Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems’ (SAFE) project in Malaysian Borneo is conducting research with experimental fragments to determine how they mediate or exacerbate the ecological impacts of deforestation. The experiment consists of a series of sampling points arranged across landscapes varying in total amount of forest cover, including primary forest, logged forest and existing palm oil plantations. Over 50 different ecological and agronomical metric indicators are being researched within this project, including the ‘composition of primate communities’, ‘functional composition of tree communities’ and ‘designing biodiversity-friendly palm plantations.’ Taking place over a timeframe of 10 years and currently in its 8th year, the project will hopefully make palm oil plantations more wildlife friendly in the future, through the redesign and expansion of forest fragments in or around plantations.
The SAFE Project is not the first attempt to make the palm oil industry more ‘sustainable.’ In 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established, striving to transform markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm. This sounds promising but unfortunately, it is debated whether the RSPO is doing an adequate job enforcing its own standards. Historically, environmental protection has been given the least priority in Indonesia’s finance schemes. The problem does not lie in the legislation of environmental protection, but in successful enforcement.
Therefore, the real challenge is to successfully collaborate with all the different institutions and stakeholders involved in palm oil cultivation. The SAFE Project is supported by the Sabah Forestry Department, and demonstrates a direct collaboration between research institutions and the palm oil industry. The objective of the project is to answer key questions for both conservationists and agronomists. Hopefully, this collaboration in research will be the new trend, with conservationists and the palm oil industry working together to achieve sustainable solutions and biodiversity-friendly palm oil plantations.
OFI and Dr. Galdikas have been very much aware of the forest fragmentation problem and have been doing their best locally to help solve it. In the province of Kalimantan Tengah (Indonesian Central Borneo) where we work, OFI has been buying forest, including fragments near palm oil plantations, in order to expand forested areas and establish wildlife corridors. Given the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations and resulting deforestation in Borneo, OFI is doing all it can but still needs much help to retard the processes of forest destruction that are bringing wild orangutan populations and other wildlife to the edge of extinction.
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 For more info please visit: https://www.safeproject.net/info/concept
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