Biofuels and biodiversity don't mix, ecologists warn

July 9, 2008

Rising demand for palm oil will decimate biodiversity unless producers and politicians can work together to preserve as much remaining natural forest as possible, ecologists have warned. A new study of the potential ecological impact of various management strategies published in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology found that very little can be done to make palm oil plantations more hospitable for local birds and butterflies. The findings have major implications for the booming market in biofuels and its impact on biodiversity.

Dr Lian Pin Koh of ETH Zürich looked at the number of birds and butterflies in 15 palm oil plantations in East Sabah, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. He found that palm oil plantations supported between one and 13 butterfly species, and between seven and 14 species of bird. Previous research by other ecologists found at least 85 butterfly and 103 bird species in neighbouring undisturbed rain forest.

Management techniques – such as encouraging epiphytes, beneficial plants or weed cover in palm oil plantations – increased species richness by only 0.4 species for butterflies and 2.2 species for birds. Preserving remaining natural forests – for example by creating forest buffer zones between plantations – made a little more impact, increasing species richness by 3.7 in the case of butterflies and 2.5 for birds.

According to Dr Koh: "Rapid expansion of oil palm agriculture onto forested lands, even logged forests, poses a significant threat to biodiversity. This study shows that to maximise biodiversity in oil palm plantations, the industry and local governments should work together to preserve as much of the remaining natural forest as possible, for example by creating forest buffer zones around oil palm estates or protecting remaining patches of forest. Even then, the industry's impact on biodiversity is enormous."

The study is particularly important because it comes at time when rising demand for both food and biofuels is putting mounting pressure on biodiversity. "The rapid expansion of oil palm agriculture in Southeast Asia raises serious concerns about its potential impact on the region's biodiversity. Unless future expansion of oil palm agriculture is regulated, rising global demand is likely to exacerbate the high rates of forest conversion in major oil palm-producing countries," says Dr Koh.

Palm oil plantations currently cover around 13 million hectares worldwide, producing 40 million tons a year. Malaysia and Indonesia account for around 56% of this cultivated area and 80% of production. Between 1960 and 2000, global palm oil production increased 10-fold (from 2 million tons in 1960 to 24 million tons in 2000). As well as biofuel, palm oil is used in food additives, cosmetics and industrial lubricants.

Source: Wiley

Explore further: Endangered orangutans threatened by fire in Indonesia

Related Stories

Indonesians take fight against haze into their own hands

October 28, 2015

Desperate civilians at the epicentre of Indonesia's haze crisis are taking the fight into their own hands, using whatever meagre resources they have to confront the fires ravaging their communities as they tire of waiting ...

Vast forest fires in Indonesia spawn ecological disaster

November 16, 2015

For farmer Achmad Rusli, it was a season of smoke: Ten weeks without sunlight for his oranges, guavas and durians, thanks to deliberately set forest fires that burned a chunk of Indonesia the size of New Jersey.

Telling the story of the world's most at-risk forests

November 13, 2015

The most recent chapter of the World Wildlife Foundation's Living Forests Report, Chapter 5: Saving Forests at Risks, identifies 11 deforestation fronts where more than 80% of global deforestation between 2010 and 2030 is ...

US-born Sumatran rhino in Indonesia on mating mission

November 1, 2015

A U.S.-born Sumatran rhino arrived in his ancestral home of Indonesia on Sunday, making the long journey from Cincinnati, Ohio, on a mission to mate to help save his critically endangered species from extinction.

Recommended for you


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.