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Well managed oil palm plantations can play a role in biodiversity conservation

Oil palm companies can play a role in conservation and help retain important biodiversity if forest set-asides are large enough, and threats to biodiversity and habitat are managed effectively. Biodiversity can be found across the oil palm landscape, not only in forest set-asides, which indicates the importance of the landscape-scale management approach according to a study commissioned by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

PT KAL’s Tanjung Sekuting 657 ha conservation area on the left and Gunung Palung National Park in the distance. At least 20 orangutans are estimated to occur in the conservation area (photo courtesy RSPO).

In RSPO’s effort towards achieving its vision of ‘transforming markets to make sustainable palm oil the norm’, one of the key outcomes its aims to achieve through standards and procedures is to sustain biodiversity within and outside of certified concessions. This involves the preservation of rare, threatened, and endangered (RTE) species, as well as preservation of High Conservation Value (HCV) areas and more recently, High Carbon Stock (HCS) forests.

With the aim to better understand its progress towards this key outcome, the RSPO commissioned a study in late 2019 to evaluate how certification processes can and/or have contributed to the protection of species and landscapes, and to identify the opportunities for improvement.

Review of SPOTT assessed members

The study “BIODIVERSITY IMPACT OF RSPO CERTIFICATION – AN ASSESSMENT OF GOOD PRACTICES” was carried by Professor Erik Meijaard (Borneo Futures), Dr Marc Ancrenaz (HUTAN) and Dr Sebastianus (Bas) van Balen (Basilornis Consults), and the full report has been reviewed by three independent panel reviewers.

The study looked at five RSPO member companies that have been objectively assessed for their high-quality management through the Sustainability Policy Transparency Toolkit (SPOTT) – Agropalma in Brazil; PT Kayung Agro Lestari (KAL) under PT Austindo Nusantara Jaya Tbk (ANJ) Group, United Plantations, and REA Kaltim in Indonesia; and Wilmar International Ltd in Malaysia.

The estates in each of these companies were assessed to determine how their management has addressed biodiversity conservation with regard to RSPO requirements. The most obvious was Agropalma, which has set aside 60 percent or 64 000 hectares (ha) of its concession as conservation forest.

Oil palm obviously does not have the same levels of biodiversity as natural tropical forests. Nevertheless, the results of the study indicated that well-managed RSPO-certified oil palm plantations can play a role in biodiversity conservation by supporting and retaining sometimes significant levels of biodiversity, said Professor Erik Meijaard.

Managing endangered species

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, ANJ’s PT KAL was found to be protecting a breeding population of orangutans; REA Kaltim is managing a population of critically endangered Siamese crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) () and orangutans; United Plantations is maintaining populations of orangutans and overhunted bird species such as Crested Fireback (Lophura ignita); while Wilmar’s estates’ host populations of popular cage birds that are in decline elsewhere.

Aside from forested areas, the study also indicated that oil palm plantations offer other wetland habitats i.e. the nutrient-rich palm oil mill effluent (POME) treatment ponds and nearby wetland and scrub areas that have been overlooked as areas of conservation value.

In all five companies assessed, these sedimentation ponds nearby palm oil mills offered man-made habitat used by local waterbirds and migratory waders. However, these areas are often overlooked as areas for conservation as HCV assessments focus on natural habitats.

It is therefore recommended that a landscape-scale approach to conservation is taken whereby these ponds will also be managed and monitored.

Context-specific approach

Furthermore, the study reported that the five companies had distinctly different approaches to biodiversity management depending on the specific context (e.g. local threats, size of operation, region, or location of the estate) that they operate in.

For example, the protection of Agropalma’s large, relatively unthreatened, and well-connected forest areas require low-level patrolling and law enforcement efforts, whereas PT KAL’s forest areas are threatened by fire, poaching and mining thus require high-intensity management.

There is no silver bullet solution to effective biodiversity management, but an active or hands-on approach has been indicated to produce good results as demonstrated by the companies assessed.

Planted areas in Agropalma with dead palm leaves indicating reduced leaf pruning and grasses and shrubs underneath the palms indicating reduced undergrowth clearing (photo courtesy RSPO).

Some of the efforts by the companies included setting up a biodiversity unit (internally or in collaboration with independent organizations), hiring competent and sufficient staff for management and monitoring (M&M) activities, and engaging or involving local communities in conservation work.

Few generalities exist on how the companies assessed have approached biodiversity management but a common theme across all companies is that there was high-level support for biodiversity conservation from either the company owner(s) or top management.

While the conservation benefits generated from good biodiversity management are clear, it was unclear if they were achieved due to RSPO certification. Considerable complexity of the RSPO biodiversity requirements relating to HCV M&M, which may require costly technical expertise, has been mentioned to be a key factor of the disconnect.

As a result, HCV assessments largely became paper exercises that contributed little to effective biodiversity management. The RSPO says that it recognizes these identified gaps and will be working with its stakeholders to determine systems and best practices for effective biodiversity management on oil palm plantations moving forward.

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