Ray of conservation light for Borneo

25 07 2009

This was the most interesting 20 minutes I’ve spent in the last wee while.

Up until just now, I had never heard of Willie Smits or what he’s been doing in Indonesia. I’ve been fairly hard on Indonesia in some of my papers and blog posts because of the ecological tragedy taking place there. I’ve focussed on the immense rate and extent of deforestation, the oil palm explosion, peatland destruction and air pollution arising from runaway fires there – I have thus far ignored any real positives because I didn’t really believe there were any.

Then I saw Smits’ TED talk. Two words – very impressed. I usually enjoy and even barrack for TED talks, and this is no exception.

This man and his organisation have really been applying a great deal of the research mentioned on ConservationBytes.com, as well as collecting data proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that if you integrate people’s needs with those of biodiversity, you can restore not only entire ecosystems, you can make humans benefit immensely in the process. A chronic pessimist, I can scarcely believe it.

He talks about a whole-system approach where agriculture, full rain forest restoration, climate control, carbon sequestration, monitoring and local governance all work together to turn once bare, fire-prone, species-poor deforested grasslands into teaming jungles that support happy, healthy, wealthy and well-governed human communities. Please watch this.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

CJA Bradshaw

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June Issue of Conservation Letters

6 06 2009

Quick off the mark this month is the new issue of Conservation Letters. There are some exciting new papers (listed below). I encourage readers to have a look:

Policy Perspectives

Letters

CJA Bradshaw





Tropical forests worth more standing

4 06 2009
© R. Butler

© R. Butler

Keeping with the oil palm theme…

A paper just published online in Conservation Letters by Venter and colleagues entitled Carbon payments as a safeguard for threatened tropical mammals gets my vote for the Potential list.

We’ve been saying it again and again and again… tropical forests, the biodiversity they harbour and the ecosystem services they provide are worth more to humanity than the potential timber they represent. Now we find they’re even worth more than cash crops (e.g., oil palm) planned to replace them.

A few years ago some very clever economists and environmental policy makers came up with the concept of ‘REDD’ (reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), which is basically as system “… to provide financial incentives for developing countries that voluntarily reduce national deforestation rates and associated carbon emissions below a reference level”. Compensation can occur either via grant funding or through a carbon-trading scheme in international markets.

Now, many cash-greedy corporations argue that REDD could in no way compete with the classic rip-it-down-and-plant-the-shit-out-of-it-with-a-cash-crop approach, but Venter and colleagues now show this argument to be a bit of a furphy.

The authors asses the financial feasibility of REDD in all planned oil palm plantations in Kalimantan – Indonesia’s part of the island of Borneo in South East Asia. Borneo is also the heart of the environmental devastation typical of the tropics. They conclude that REDD is in fact a rather financially competitive scheme if we can manage to obtain carbon prices of around US$10-33/tonne. In fact, even when carbon prices are as low as US$2/tonne (as they are roughly now on the voluntary market), REDD is still competitive for areas of high forest carbon content and lower agricultural potential.

But the main advantage isn’t just the positive cash argument – many endangered mammals (and there are 46 of them in Kalimantan) such as the South East Asian equivalent of the panda (the orang-utan – ‘equivalent’ in the media-hype and political sensitivity sense, not taxonomic, of course) and the Bornean elephant (yes, they have them) are currently found in areas planned for plantation. So saving the forest obviously saves these and countless other taxa that only exist on this highly endemic island. Finally, Venter and colleagues found that where emission reductions were cheapest, these are also areas with higher-than-average densities of endangered mammals, suggesting that REDD is a fantastic option to keep developing countries in the black without compromising their extensive species richness and endemism.

Brilliant. Now if we can just get the economists and pollies to agree on a REDD model that actually works.

CJA Bradshaw

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Tropical Turmoil II

8 03 2009

In August last year I covered a paper my colleagues (Navjot Sodhi and Barry Brook) and I had in press in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment entitled Tropical turmoil – a biodiversity tragedy in progress. The paper is now available in the March 2009 issue of the journal (click here to access). We were also fortunate enough to grab the front cover (shown here) and have a dedicated podcast that you can listen to by clicking here about the paper and its findings. I encourage ConservationBytes.com readers to have a listen if they’re interested in learning more about the woeful state of tropical biotas worldwide, and maybe some ways to rectify the problems. The intro to the podcast can be viewed by clicking here.

CJA Bradshaw





More greenwashing from the Malaysian oil palm industry

17 11 2008

© ?

© ?

A recent article from Mongabay.com. What the good doctor Basiron appears to gloss over rather well is that his own country’s very economic future, well-being of its citizenry and long-term sustainability absolutely depends on maintaining large tracts of intact primary forest. The value of its forests far outweighs the short-term ‘development’ gains from palm oil. The backflips, greenwashing and overt profiteering will only be a blip in Malaysia’s economic development, so keep on with the propaganda while you can, Basiron. Why don’t you call a spade a spade – it’s greed, not so-called ‘development’ that’s raping your own country.

Dr. Yusof Basiron, the controversial CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), blogs about the sustainability of palm oil.

Scientists should compare the biodiversity oil palm plantations to other industrial monocultures, not the rainforests they replace, said Dr. Yusof Basiron, CEO of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), in a post on his blog.

“I would also like to encourage environmental scientists not to compare the biodiversity of an agricultural crop such as the oil palm with that of rain forests,” he wrote. “The findings would not win you a Nobel price [sic].”

“If a comparison is to be made, the biodiversity of the oil palm, an agricultural crop, should be compared with that for soyabean or rapeseed, corn or sugarcane or other agricultural crops,” he continued. “Biodiversity that exists in the oil palm plantations is a bonus for all to benefit, while we enjoy the supply of oil for our food need, in addition to palm oil – an agricultural commodity – helping to promote economic growth not only in the developing countries but also in all other countries involved in using the product.”

Oil palm plantations and logged over forest in Malaysian Borneo. While much of the forest land converted for oil palm plantations in Malaysia has been logged or otherwise been zoned for logging, expansion at the expense of natural and protected forest does occur in the country. Reserve borders are sometimes redrawn to facilitate logging and conversion to plantations.
Basiron’s comments are noteworthy because until now he has maintained that oil palm plantations are “planted forests” rather than an industrial crop. Oil palm plantations are indeed biologically impoverished relative to even heavily logged forests – a study published earlier this year showed that oil palm plantations retain less than one-sixth the biodiversity of old growth forests and less than a quarter of that in secondary forests. However when compared with soy or rapeseed farms, which support almost no wildlife, oil palm plantations look a little less like biological deserts. Small measures – like maintaining and restoring forest cover along waterways, conserving peatlands and high value conservation areas, and reducing the use of fertilizers and pesticides – can help augment the biodiversity of existing plantations.

Basiron also noted that oil palm is the highest yielding conventional oilseed on the market – far outstripping the production per unit of area for rapeseed and soy. While its high yield makes oil palm exceedingly profitable – especially during the recent boom in palm oil prices, which recently ended, coinciding with falling oil prices – it also theoretically means that less land needs to be converted to produce the same amount of oil had the land been cultivated with other crops. The problem, say environmentalists, stems from the practice of clearing natural forest for oil palm plantations, which reduces biodiversity, hurts ecosystem functioning, and results in greenhouse gas emissions. While Basiron and the MPOC have flatly denied that natural forest has been cleared for the establishment of oil palm plantations, ground and satellite evidence proves the claims quite false. Nevertheless there are opportunities to covert degraded and abandoned agricultural lands for oil palm, mostly in Indonesia, rather than Malaysia where most land is already under cultivation or forested. While returns would be lower without the “logging subsidy” generated by selling the timber harvested from forest land prior to planting with oil palm, such plantations would face less criticism from the environmental community.

A third point made by Basiron is that Malaysia is a sovereign nation that has same rights to develop its economy as industrialized nations have had. The same concept has been put forth by Brazil over deforestation of the Amazon and China with regards to its rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Basiron writes,

“It is also unethical, immoral and somewhat patronizing for NGOs of the developed countries in Europe to ask developing countries such as Malaysia to stop developing its land. Asking Malaysia to stop developing its land will lead to conflicts and misunderstanding because some states in Malaysia have not yet had the opportunity to develop their agricultural land as they were until a few decades ago under oppressive colonial rule.”

“Sarawak [a state on the island of Borneo] which achieved independence from the British later than Peninsular Malaysia had only developed 8% of its land for agriculture compared to the UK which has over 70% of its land under agriculture. But there are still opportunities in Sarawak and other parts of Malaysia to develop degraded logged over land for planting rubber and oil palm to increase the country’s sources of foreign exchange while not involving the deforestation of the pristine permanent forests.”

While Basiron’s comments will likely be dismissed or ignored by many environmental groups, his points are not the sort that typically provoke outcry from the green lobby. MPOC lands in the most trouble with the environmental community when it attempts to deliberately mislead the marketplace on the environmental performance of palm oil, an approach the group has used repeatedly in recent years with advertising campaigns, “greenwashing” and “astroturfing” techniques, and other propaganda. Of course MPOC is not alone in using these tactics – it follows the model employed widely by industries ranging from U.S. ethanol producers to big oil. The problem for MPOC – and other industries – is that misleading campaigns are only providing more fodder for its enemies. But MPOC is hedging itself. The palm oil marketing group is also employing a second strategy that may pay better dividends in the long run – an effort to improve the environmental performance of palm oil. While the initiative – known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – has stumbled a bit coming out of the blocks, it appears there may be a market for certified palm oil, which would offer producers a premium for mitigating the environmental and social impacts of producing the vegetable oil. The first RSPO-certified palm oil is expected the reach Europe today. Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumers of palm oil, has already pledged to buy only certified palm oil by 2015.

See also previous posts on oil palm at ConservationBytes.com:

Unexpected benefits of falling palm oil prices

Oil palm plantatations destroying tropical biodiversity

Another nail in Borneo’s biodiversity coffin





Save the biggest (and closest) ones

12 11 2008

© somapsychedelica

© somapsychedelica

A paper we recently wrote and published in Biological Conservation entitled Using biogeographical patterns of endemic land snails to improve conservation planning for limestone karsts lead by my colleague Reuben Clements of WWF has recently been highlighted at Mongabay.com. Our main result was that following the basic tenets of the theory of island biogeography, the largest, least-isolated limestone karsts in South East Asia (biologically rich limestone outcrops formed millions of years ago by the deposition of calcareous marine organisms) have the greatest proportion of endemic land snails (a surrogate taxon for uniqueness among other species). I’ll let Rhett at Mongabay.com do the rest (see original post):

Researchers have devised a scientific methodology for prioritizing conservation of limestone karsts, biologically-rich outcroppings found in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world. The findings are significant because karsts – formed millions of years ago by sea life – are increasingly threatened by mining and other development.

Using data from 43 karsts across Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah, authors led by Reuben Clements of WWF-Malaysia reported that larger karsts support greater numbers of endemic snails – a proxy for biological uniqueness among other species – making them a priority for protection.

“Larger areas tend to have greater habitat diversity, which enables them so support a higher number of unique species.” said Clements, species conservation manager for WWF-Malaysia.

With a variety of habitats including sinkholes, caves, cliffs, and underground rivers, and separated from other outcroppings by lowland areas, karsts support high levels of endemism among insects, snails, fish, plants, bats and other small mammals. Animals that inhabit karsts provide humans with important services including pest control, pollination, and a sustainable source of income (swiftlet nests used for bird nest soup, a Chinese delicacy, are found in karst caves). But karsts are increasingly under threat, especially from mining for cement and marble. An earlier study by Clements showed that limestone quarrying is increasing in Southeast Asia by 5.7 percent a year – the highest rate in the world – to fuel the region’s construction boom. The biodiversity of karsts – especially among animals that move to surrounding areas to feed – is also at risk from destruction of adjacent ecosystems, often by loggers or for agriculture.

Clements says the new study, which is published in the November issue of the journal Biological Conservation, will help set conservation priorities for karsts.

“The protection of karsts has been mainly ad hoc and they are usually spared from quarrying by virtue of being situated within state and national parks, or if they possess some form of aesthetic or cultural value,” he said. “Taking Peninsular Malaysia for example, our results suggest that we should set aside larger karsts on both sides of the Titiwangsa mountain range for protection if we want to maximize the conservation of endemic species. Protecting karsts on one side of the mountain chain is not enough.”

“With our findings, we hope that governments would reconsider issuing mining concessions for larger karsts as they tend to be more biologically important,” Clements said.





Unexpected benefits of falling palm oil prices

10 11 2008

© Google Earth

© Google Earth

This one from Mongabay.com and the Jakarta Post. It would almost be humorous, if it weren’t so pathetic. After years of so-called ‘greenwashing’ tactics to downplay the environmental degradation caused by expanding oil palm plantations (see also related post here), falling world palm oil prices may just be the thing needed to curb the greed. As a side note, I recently visited China and now realise where a good proportion of the oil palm is going – while the food was fantastic, the amount of oil used in almost everything is a bit over the top. For a ‘developing’ nation, there sure were quite a few fatties on the street. Convincing China to eat less oil will also reduce demand for oil palm and save SE Asia’s dwindling biodiversity.

The agricultural ministers for both countries [Indonesia and Malaysia] agreed to initiate a 300,000-hectare replanting program that will replace aging trees with seedlings of higher-yielding varieties. The seedlings will begin to bear oil palm fruit “fresh fruit bunches” for harvest in three to four years’ time.

“Demand is projected to slow down in every sector next year as a result of global recession. We’re preventing a possible oversupply of palm oil that may occur next year by replanting trees,” Achmad Mangga Barani, the director general for plantations for Indonesia’s Agriculture Ministry, was quoted as saying. “This hopefully will help boost the palm oil price to a normal level — at around US$700 to $800 per metric ton.”

Palm oil prices in Malaysia have fallen from more than $1200 per ton earlier this year to a three-year low of around $376 per ton on Oct. 28. Palm oil prices have lately moved in step with the price crude oil, which has also rapidly retreated from recent record high nominal prices.

The decline in palm oil prices is expected to slow expansion of oil palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, a development that will please environmentalists who blame the palm oil industry for large-scale destruction of rainforests across Southeast Asia.

The new plan calls for replanting of 50,000 hectares in Indonesia and 250,000 in Malaysia. Indonesia, which has significantly lower palm oil yields than Malaysia due to marginal oil palm varieties and fewer industrial producers, will aim to replant 125,000 ha by 2011.