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Forests in oil palm plantations are key to conservation

A new study from the University of York emphasizes the enormous value of protected forest areas in oil palm plantations. According to the researchers, these natural forests play a critical role in supporting biodiversity and storing carbon. 

Palm oil production is associated with large-scale deforestation and habitat destruction that impacts some of the world’s most threatened species like Asian rhinos, elephants, and orangutans. 

Furthermore, when tropical forests are converted into plantations, massive amounts of stored carbon are released into the atmosphere as CO2. The effects are the most prevalent in Indonesia and Malaysia, where 85 percent of all palm oil is produced.

The research, which was focused on palm oil agriculture in Borneo, has shown that patches of protected forest offer much-needed protection for endangered species like hornbill birds and dipterocarp trees.

In addition, the researchers estimate that plantations with one-tenth of the land set aside as preserved forest can potentially store 20 percent more carbon than plantations without protected forest.

“Our study found that these forest areas do increase carbon stored in oil palm plantations, helping to mitigate the carbon emissions associated with oil palm agriculture,” said study lead author Susannah Fleiss.

“We also found that the protected forest sites which stored the most carbon also contained the highest plant diversity, so by choosing to protect forest areas with high carbon stocks, oil palm plantations will also protect rainforest biodiversity.”

For the investigation, the research team measured trees and other vegetation in 14 protected forest areas in RSPO-certified oil palm plantations in Malaysian Borneo.

In order for a plantation to achieve certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), natural areas of forest must be protected on the plantation.

Compared to trees in the primary rainforest, the protected forest areas in oil palm plantations had low numbers of tree seedlings. The researchers are urging oil palm plantation owners to manage protected areas of forest in order to conserve them for the future.

“We recommend that oil palm plantations manage their protected forest to improve the potential for the trees to produce seedlings and for the seedlings to survive. This could include planting additional seedlings or cutting back vines,” said Fleiss.

Professor Jane Hill noted that palm oil is a key ingredient in many supermarket products and it is crucial that it comes from sustainable sources. “Our study highlights the importance of retaining forest patches in sustainable cultivation practices.”

The research was funded by Unilever and the University of York.

The study is published in the journal Biological Conservation.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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