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Oil Palm Development Threatens African and Latin American Biodiversity, New Report Warns

New research suggests that zero deforestation pledges may leave important habitats in Latin America and Africa vulnerable to agricultural growth.

Biodiversity Ghana Savana
Ghana savanna

According to the findings of a recent study, making zero deforestation commitments, could, unintentionally make biodiversity, key habitats in Latin America and Africa more vulnerable to agricultural growth.

The study demonstrates the inadequacy of sustainability pledges in protecting biodiversity in tropical grassy and dry forest habitats like the Llanos in Colombia, the Beni savanna in northern Bolivia, or the Guinean and Congolian savannas in West and Central Africa.

A third of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red-listed vertebrates might be harmed if oil palm growers removed these ecosystems for new plantations, according to a University of York study. Bolivia’s blue-throated macaw, Congo’s huge pangolin, and Colombia’s Hellmich’s Rocket Frog.

The study maps oil palm plantation-prone locations worldwide. They found 167 million hectares that match the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil’s (RSPO) criterion of “zero deforestation” for the crop. Most of South America and Africa’s 95 million hectares are grasslands and dry woodlands.

As global demand for agricultural land rises, researchers are urging urgent preservation of these habitats, which support a diverse range of species and store carbon.

“Palm oil is at the front edge of debate on how we can balance the need to feed the world and support livelihoods while safeguarding the environment,” said co-author Professor Jane Hill of the Department of Biology of the University of York.

Palm oil, a miracle crop that nourishes millions of tropical people, has a yield six times higher than oil seed rape. Instead of prohibiting palm oil, we need strong international policies to safeguard tropical rainforests, grasslands, and dry forests. Our analysis shows how present sustainability pledges may endanger exceptional biodiversity from oil palm cultivation expansion.”

Since 2018, numerous oil palm companies have signed the RSPO’s zero deforestation commitments, which prohibits cultivation in tropical rainforests and peatlands.

Many oil palm producers have not joined the scheme, despite buyer and consumer concerns over palm oil’s environmental impact.

”Although our research indicated that the yield of oil palm would be lower in places currently covered by grass and dry forest than in tropical rainforests, these locations would still be desirable for the extension of oil palm cultivation,” said first author Dr. Susannah Fleiss, who conducted the study, a Ph.D. fellow at the University of York.

“In many of these places, irrigation would increase output, making them more desirable for growth.”

“Clearing these regions for plantations might reduce the ranges of 25% of endangered vertebrate species. Plantations would replace these areas’ habitats, interrupting animals’ food and water sources and migration routes.”

“In tropical grassland and dry forests, many people help natural processes like fire and grazing. These areas’ oil palm growth may cause local people and biodiversity problems.”

“Our analysis emphasizes the necessity for international governance to safeguard these habitats, in addition to tropical rainforest protection.”

Dr. Phil Platts, a co-author of the study also an Honorary Fellow at the University of York, said: “Sustainability recommendations for palm oil were produced in the context of Southeast Asia’s rainforests, and thus reflect the structure and function of those environments.”

“As expansion shifts to diverse ecological contexts, sustainability responsibilities must expand to match the distinct biodiversity and carbon supplies presently under threat.”

In partnership with Liverpool, Oxford, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Unilever, and BeZero Carbon, Unilever funded the Nature Ecology and Evolution study (Fleiss et al., 2022).

Related Publication

Fleiss, S., C. L. Parr, et al. (2022). “Implications of zero-deforestation palm oil for tropical grassy and dry forest biodiversity.” Nature Ecology & Evolution.

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