Sustainable Palm Oil Production
Dr. Glen Reynolds, lead scientist on the Earthwatch project Climate and Landscape Change in Borneo’s Rainforest, has been appointed as a scientific advisor on the Biodiversity and High Conservation Values Working Group of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Dr. Reynolds has worked for over 10 years in Borneo’s Danum Valley where he, along with a number of Malaysian and U.K. collaborators, is carrying out a long-term research program to assess the impacts of land use and climate change on tropical rainforest. Findings from this project, along with the Royal Society’s wider research program in Sabah, will inform decisions about management of forests to sustain livelihoods and wildlife. As a RSPO scientific advisor, he will help to ensure that oil palm plantations are established and maintained using best practice to protect the wealth of species and ecosystem services that Malaysia’s rainforests support.
“The RSPO has pioneered a multistakeholder approach that is now being taken up by other industries. The RSPO has the potential to make significant improvements in the sustainability of palm oil production,” Dr. Reynolds says.
The RSPO, formed in 2004 in Zurich, Switzerland, in response to a global call for sustainably produced palm oil, unites stakeholders from all sectors of the palm oil industry - from producers to nonprofit environmental and development organizations. Its objective is to promote the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders.
Over one million hectares of palm oil plantation are now RSPO certified - which accounts for approximately 10 percent of all palm oil that is now produced. “We are taking strides in the right direction,” says Dr. Reynolds,” but progress is not without difficulty. There is currently a lack of scientific evidence underpinning the RSPO guiding principles, and more data is needed.”
Dr. Reynolds and his colleagues aim to help change that.
Plugging the Knowledge Gap
RSPO certification criteria define social standards that must be met on plantations, prohibit cultivation on areas of land of High Conservation Value (HCV), and regulate the establishment of new plantings. They also include restrictions on the use of pesticides and herbicides.
However, questions remain as to the scientific basis of some RSPO criteria, and many oil palm growers have difficulty in both their interpretation and their implementation. For example, assessments to identify areas of HCV forest are complex, requiring skill sets that are seldom present among plantation staff, and once HCV forests are identified, guidance as to how to maintain the conservation values which they support is often lacking.
Research by Dr. Reynolds and his colleagues in Borneo has benefited from the support of a number of Malaysian Ph.D. students and many Earthwatch volunteers. Although their work was not specifically intended to provide data to inform sustainable palm oil production, it will make a significant contribution to the pool of knowledge that is now needed to inform the development and revision of the RSPO criteria.
“Our Ph.D. students’ research into soil erosion and forest regeneration will contribute to essential baseline knowledge that will help us to understand how land use change and different planting practices will affect the capacity of plantations to support biodiversity and yield palm oil sustainably over the long term,” Dr. Reynolds says.
Palm Oil: Not all Bad?
The perception of palm oil as one of the great modern environmental evils has grown among Western cultures in recent years, but that perception may not be entirely justified, argues Dr. Reynolds. “We’d be hard pushed to say that oil palm cultivation is solely responsible for extinctions. Habitat loss, which has occurred for a number of reasons, not just oil palm cultivation, has certainly led to dramatic reductions in numbers of species, but we have to balance that with the need to feed a growing population and sustain local livelihoods,” Dr. Reynolds says.
Oil palms are four to five times more productive than soya, the next most efficient oil seed crop. Palm oil is also calorie-rich, so the energy yield per hectare of palm plantation is extremely high. Furthermore, the palm oil industry has transformed the livelihoods of many low-income families in Borneo. “The profits that smallholders can generate from oil-palm cultivation have allowed some of them to send their children to university,” says Dr. Reynolds. “The positive trickle-down effects of the industry on communities are palpable.”
Dr. Reynolds’s research team has been commissioned to undertake a six-month scoping study, based on interviews and desk-based research. “I hope that this initial piece of research will allow us to develop a full project proposal to examine the effectiveness of the current RSPO criteria,” he says. “Working with the RSPO and other key stakeholders, we hope to identify knowledge gaps, help to establish where the current criteria are not delivering the best possible outcomes for biodiversity and for communities, and make informed decisions about how to improve them where necessary.”
To find out how you can get involved and help Dr. Reynolds in his research, visit Climate and Landscape Change in Borneo’s rainforest.