Conversion of primary rainforest to an oil palm plantation results in a loss of more than 80 percent of species, reports a new comprehensive review of the impacts of growing palm oil production. The research is published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
“By compiling scientific studies of birds, bats, ants and other species, we were able to show that on average, fewer than one-sixth of the species recorded in primary forest were found in oil palm,” said led author Emily Fitzherbert from the Zoological Society of London and University of East Anglia. “Degraded forest, and even alternative crops such as rubber and cocoa, supported higher numbers of species than oil palm plantations.”
The results confirm that oil palm plantations are a poor substitute for natural forests when it comes to conservation of biological diversity.
The study warns that burgeoning demand for palm oil for use in foods, household products, and biodiesel will continue to fuel expansion in the tropics. Because planters can subsidize operations by the initial logging for forest plots, it seems likely that forests will continue to fall for new plantations despite the availability of large tracts of degraded and abandoned land.
“There is enough non-forested land suitable for plantation development to allow large increases in production without large impacts on tropical forests, but as a result of political inertia, competing priorities and lack of capacity and understanding, not to mention high levels of demand for timber and palm oil from wealthy consumers, it is still often cheaper and easier to clear forests. Unless these conditions change quickly, the impacts of oil palm expansion on biodiversity will be substantial,” the authors conclude.
See also Koh & Wilcove. 2008. Is oil palm agriculture really destroying tropical biodiversity? Conservation Letters 1: 60-64