Forests News: Experts: Oil palm need not spell disaster for forests
NAIROBI, Kenya — To the agro-food industry and smallholder farmers in the tropics, it’s a veritable miracle plant. To many NGOs and indigenous groups, it’s a grave threat to land rights and to the environment. So which is it? How can a single plant — the oil palm — cause such a divergence of viewpoints?
The conversion of primary forest into mono-specific oil palm plantations is undoubtedly an ecological disaster
These are the questions that Alain Rival and Patrice Levang tackle in their book, “Palms of controversies: Oil palm and development challenges,” newly translated into English and published online by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
“The problem,” the authors write, “is not the oil palm but the way people have chosen to exploit it.”
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Rival, of CIRAD, a French agriculture and development research center, and Levang, of CIFOR and the French environmental research institute IRD, use data and field experience to provide a comprehensive and nuanced picture of oil palm — a picture that has been largely lacking in the divisive debates over one of the world’s most important agricultural commodities.
The plant cannot be seen as either a driver of development, as companies claim, nor as a harbinger of poverty, as many NGOs maintain, Levang says.
“The picture is more complex; oil palm is neither one thing nor the other but both at the same time,” he said. “The verdict differs depending on the site chosen, period involved and individuals asked.”
Today, nearly 18 million hectares of land in the tropics have been planted with oil palm — an area roughly the size of Cambodia. The authors concede that the environmental impact of oil palm expansion has been “disastrous,” particularly in Southeast Asia, where it has been to the detriment of tropical forests in one of the world’s most extraordinary reservoirs of biodiversity. In just a few decades, Indonesia has seen the conversion of more than 5 million hectares of primary forest and Malaysia more than 4 million hectares.
“The conversion of primary forest into mono-specific oil palm plantations is undoubtedly an ecological disaster,” Rival and Levang write.
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