Although widely flagged as green, biofuels developed from palm oil may only increase environmental costs, particularly in the Amazon

Any discussion about the future of oil palm cultivation in Latin America must consider Amazonia. The forests of the Amazon basin include about 41% of the world’s remaining tropical rainforest, some 6.2m square kilometres. These provide locally, regionally and globally significant human-welfare benefits, both economic and environmental.

Amazonian carbon stocks are equal to a decade of global CO2 emissions and contain about a quarter of global terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity.

Yet, this huge region is currently experiencing the world’s highest absolute rate of forest clearance. About half a million hectares a year are being cleared in the Brazilian Amazon alone.

This loss, degradation and fragmentation of forest habitats is the result of large-scale forest conversion into cattle ranches, food crops, and exotic-tree monocultures. The destruction is also the result of clear-cutting from slash-and-burn agriculture, and selective logging.

And oil palm – for food production and for development of biofuel – can now be added to this mix of potential deforestation drivers, and its impacts upon terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity are not yet properly understood.

Diminishing advantages

Although widely flagged as low carbon, environmental advantages diminish should palm oil production for biofuels contribute, directly or indirectly, to deforestation or water pollution.

This has proven to be the case in many parts of the world, such as Indonesia and Malaysia. There, plantation owners will often use timber revenues from primary forests to provide set-up costs for plantation establishment and maintenance. Thus the question of how to make oil palm a more environmentally friendly crop becomes of critical conservation importance.

On site practices to enhance local biodiversity, such as the production of oil palm beneath shade trees or maintenance of forest patches within plantations, have been proposed as mitigation measures. Significant environmental progress has also been made under the auspices of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certification programme, a result of many of the largest palm oil producers’ desire to implement environmentally-friendly management.

The impacts on biodiversity of oil palm monocultures has been heavily studied in southeast Asia, where even wildlife-friendly management techniques have failed to conserve species of conservation concern in the absence of sufficiently large and well-preserved forest patches.

Land use decisions

Decisions about how to balance land requirements for agriculture biofuels and biodiversity conservation will thus have profound effects on the conservation of Amazonian biodiversity, as well as economic development and poverty alleviation.

The new Brazilian Forest Code (Law 12.651/12) was finally approved in December 2012 after intense debate between parliamentarians, rural landowners and environmentalists. Many of the most important revisions affected what are known as areas of permanent protection.

This includes legal protection afforded to riparian and hillside vegetation. Any interventions within the areas of protection should not significantly interfere with their ability to maintain and protect in perpetuity local water resources, biodiversity, soil protection and the well-being of local human populations.

The Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, gained respect from environmental groups after vetoing nine of 84 items on the first version of the revised code that was passed by congress. Changes that resulted from Rousseff’s intervention include the recognition of freshwater wetlands and salt-marshes as areas of permanent protection, as well as changes in the width of riparian forest that needs to be restored.

A recent resolution (Nº 107 de 08/03/2013) by the environmental council of the Brazilian state of Pará outlined the land-uses within the protected areas that can be considered to be low impact, so that land-owners can accomplish the mandatory forest restoration stated in the forest code.

And a growing body of research from across the tropics has convincingly demonstrated that oil palm plantations cannot be considered as having a low environmental impact.

Poor habitat

Typically, oil palm plantations are able to host very few native species of flora and fauna and require substantial pesticide inputs. Indeed recent fieldwork in eastern Pará conducted by researchers from the Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi found oil palm plantations to be very species-poor, even in comparison with other agricultural land-uses.

However, there is potential for expansion of oil palm in Brazilian Amazonia, particularly on degraded lands, where impacts to biodiversity would be minimal and plantations could even be net carbon sinks. Furthermore, if cultivated in a responsible manner, oil palm plantations could offer a lifeline to regional biodiversity. Palm oil plantation managers should comply with Brazilian forestry legislation and protect forest on their land from degradation by selective logging, fire and hunting.

Palm oil expansion should not compromise ecologically sensitive areas and those involved must guard against triggering even more deforestation.

Dr Alexander C Lees is a conservation biologist at the Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi, a research institute in Brazil.

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Amazon  biofuels  Environment  Palm Oil 

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