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Addressing the threats to biodiversity from oil-palm agriculture


Oil-palm agriculture is the greatest immediate threat to biodiversity in Southeast Asia. Despite the efforts of environmentalists, oil palm continues to expand across the tropics. Those concerned about the impacts of oil palm on biodiversity must face some harsh social, economic, and ecological realities: (i) oil palm has been a very profitable crop; (ii) palm oil is used in so many products that simple, direct actions, such as boycotts, are unlikely to succeed; (iii) there is currently insufficient demand for certified sustainable palm oil and inadequate political clout from environmental groups in two of the biggest markets for palm oil—China and India—to slow the rate of forest conversion; and (iv) oil-palm agriculture has improved the lives of poor rural communities in Southeast Asia (although it has also disenfranchised some indigenous communities). To address the threats posed by oil-palm agriculture to biodiversity, environmentalists must change the behavior of the palm oil business through: (i) regulations to curb undesirable activities (e.g., a ban on converting forests to oil palm); (ii) financial incentives to promote desirable behavior (e.g., production of certified, sustainable oil palm); (iii) financial disincentives designed to discourage undesirable behavior (e.g., consumer pressure on major manufacturers and retailers to use palm oil that does not come from plantations created at the expense of forests); and (iv) the promotion of alternative, more biodiversity-friendly uses of forested land that might otherwise be converted to oil palm. There is no single best approach for dealing with the oil-palm crisis in Southeast Asia; a mixture of regulations, incentives, and disincentives targeted at all sectors of the oil-palm industry is necessary to protect the region’s rapidly disappearing forests.

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L.P.K. was supported by an ETH Fellowship (FEL-0508-2) and a Swiss National Science Foundation research grant (105314125186). D.S.W. thanks the High Meadows Foundation for its support of his work on palm oil and deforestation in Southeast Asia. The authors thank Rhett Butler, David McLaughlin, Stuart Pimm, and an anonymous reviewer for their comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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Correspondence to David S. Wilcove.

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Wilcove, D.S., Koh, L.P. Addressing the threats to biodiversity from oil-palm agriculture. Biodivers Conserv 19, 999–1007 (2010).

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  • Tropical deforestation
  • Oil palm
  • Monoculture
  • Biodiversity conservation
  • Reconciliation ecology
  • Biofuels