Palm Oil Plantations Are Bad for Birds
Six-year old plantation palms. Credit: USDA
Ice cream and cookies, lipstick and shampoo. Palm oil, the biggest vegetable oil crop in the world, is in practically everything. Demand for the slippery stuff—which is derived from the fruit’s pulp—is so great that vast swaths of Southeast Asia’s forests have been destroyed in order to expand palm oil plantations. Not surprisingly, recent research shows that these tracts are bad for birds. Conservationists say that some measures however, can promote biodiversity—recommendations that could help preserve other forests like the Brazilian Amazon.
In many developing countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, industrial palm oil plantations dominate the agricultural landscape. These and smallholdings—agricultural lands that are smaller than a farm and frequently grow a mix of crops—often surround protected reserves leaving little pockets of native forest. Birds like the Oriental pied hornbill and the red junglefowl visit the palm oil plantations to find food, roost, or nest. Yet when they stop in the plantations, they are more susceptible to poaching, pesticides, and invasive species, says Badrul Azhar, a conservation biologist at the Universiti Putra in Malaysia, who has been researching birds on palm oil plantations.
The way to decrease these threats is managing farmland in a way that attracts more species, he says.
Although forests have the most biodiversity, smallholdings attract a wider array of species than conventional plantations, he found. That’s because they have a greater diversity of crops and provide more habitat. The smallholdings are semi-traditional farmlands, Azhar says, that have banana, coconut, and tapioca plants in addition to palm, he says. Each of those offers different food sources for birds. Even more alluring is the habitat created on smallholdings, which often have palm plants that are planted and harvested at different times, creating cover for birds and wildlife.
And even if plantations don’t implement similar measures to protect and foster biodiversity, these smallholdings could serve as buffers between protected forests and plantations, says Azhar.
The palm oil industry is spreading across the ocean, to South America. There, however, it might actually help protect forests.
Major corporations working in Brazil, including Archer Daniels Midland, and Vale, the mining company, are gearing up to begin planting palm trees. If instead of cutting down pristine forest they used degraded cattle lands, converting them to smallholder palm oil properties, they could prove to be a model for the industry, benefitting both the environment and the economy.
“At current prices, [the palm oil industry] can provide a Brazilian smallholder a ticket to the middle class,” Tim Killeen, a senior research fellow and Amazon expert at Conservation International, told Rhett Butler of Mongabay in 2011, when news first broke that a boom in palm oil production was planned in the region. “Anybody can do the math: 200 kilos of meat per hectare versus 4 tons of oil per hectare. Plantations create jobs, but a smallholder model creates a middle class.”
That would force Malaysia and Indonesia clean up their acts, argued Butler, because it would create more eco-friendly palm oil. There’s growing global awareness that palm oil plantations often spell doom for forests. Indonesia—infamously known for the decreasing number of orangutans due to palm oil plantation expansion—did impose a moratorium on palm oil plantations cutting down virgin forest in 2011, but it was not well enforced. The country extended its policy two weeks ago, vowing to enforce the moratorium.
In places where they already exist, palm landscapes should be managed for common, forest, and water birds, says Azhar, and hopefully consumers will catch on. “Perhaps, one day responsible consumers in developed countries may not reject bird-friendly palm-oil based products,” he says.
In the meantime, to see if the products you’re buying contain palm oil, check out this post from the Rainforest Action Network. It’s for the birds.