As the global market for biofuels heats up, much of the demand for biodiesel is being satisfied by clearing virgin rainforests to create oil palm plantations. But, as it turns out, these plantations are an awful substitute for rainforests.
A group of British, German and Danish researchers has found that the biodiversity of oil palm plantations is far lower than that of tropical rainforests and that no amount of plantation management changes could ever possibly make them come close to replicating rainforest diversity.
Rainforests represent the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the face of the Earth. We owe many of our modern disease cures to the mysteries held in that biodiversity. On top of that, rainforests are also a huge sink for global warming gases such as carbon dioxide.
In fact, in a recent report, Greenpeace has identified Indonesia as the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, mostly due to deforestation associated with the expansion of oil palm plantations.
If one of the intents of mandated worldwide biofuel usage is to make the burning of those fuels carbon neutral — so they don’t contribute to global warming — then it would seem that deriving a large proportion of biodiesel from rainforest land that was cleared to plant oil palms is counterproductive.
To be fair, the production of biofuels is only one of many contributors to the expansion of palm plantations in Southeast Asia — Food products containing palm oil account for 70% of the world’s insatiable demand for the stuff, but with the rate of biofuel demand rising sharply, biofuel’s part is sure to grow.
Together, Malaysia and Indonesia account for 80% of worldwide palm oil production, but they also contain more than 80% of the remaining virgin rainforests in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, the only remaining lands in Southeast Asia that are also the best for palm oil production are these vast swaths of virgin rainforest.
Recently, Europe has begun to rescind its biofuel mandates in part due to worries over Southeast Asian deforestation, but it’s unclear if this will slow demand for palm oil worldwide. In many ways the process of converting rainforest to palm plantations seems irreversible now, mostly because food demand for palm oil is increasing so dramatically.
Report co-author, Ben Phalan, suggests that some of the impacts from oil palm plantation expansion can be mitigated:
“There is enough non-forested land suitable for plantation development to allow large increases in production without further deforestation,” but he goes on to say that “Unless governments in producer countries show stronger leadership in controlling logging, protecting forests and ensuring that crops are planted only in appropriate areas, the impacts of oil palm expansion on biodiversity will be substantial.”
While the authors do make some suggestions as to how to go about mitigating plantation expansion, the study mostly paints a bleak picture of the future of these rainforests without a willingness among the governments of Southeast Asia to address the problems.
But it seems to me that these small countries don’t have the resources to enforce what is required of them to mitigate palm oil expansion, and right now most other developed contries are facing crises which preclude their ability to help out too, whether it’s wanted or not. So, I’m left asking, is there really anything that can be done?
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Image Credits: Palm leaf background from seanmcgrath’s Flickr photostream. Palm oil plantation picture from a_rabin’s Flickr photostream. Images reproduced and altered under a Creative Commons license.