I’ve recently been trapping in the oil-palm plantations beyond our forested experimental area. Much as the Maliau Basin has set the bar for me on what we should expect from a piece of forested land, the oil palm plantations have helped to define what Malaysia (and SE Asia) envisions as their agricultural landscape. It has also offered me a vision of the future for much of the forested area we are working in, due to be turned into an oil palm monoculture from the beginning of 2012.
I should re-iterate that this forest clearance (of around 6000 ha, or 60 sq km) is emphatically not being done for scientific reasons, and has been pre-destined (and decreed by the Government of Malaysia) for more than two decades prior. Rather, the SAFE Project is attempting to capitalise on fore-warning of the clearance, in order to document and study, in a robust, scientific and defensible way, the exact impacts of oil palm plantation expansion on SE Asia’s rain forests. As results from the SAFE Project emerge, they will feed into the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) guidelines for oil palm producers. It is certainly not an “experiment” anyone in the project wishes to see repeated.
Oil palm plantations have been called many things and, try as I might, I do not think they are a vision of hell on earth, as Greenpeace would have you believe. Yes, the rivers are polluted, they are rat-infested, crawling with snakes, and hot (hellishly so, even). The associated soil disturbance also causes frequent landslides, and we don’t need to mention the big one: increased carbon emissions. But they are not part of some global conspiracy, mostly run by HSBC, to ruin us all. They are a (mostly) logical outcome of the way current economic markets value commodities: palm oil is going for 1000RM (£200) a tonne or thereabouts, whilst a piece of primary forest real estate currently has a near negligible marketable value. Acre-for-acre, the odds are stacked against wild nature. Everyone here aspires to settle down with a few acres of land and grow themselves rich with oil palm.
The figures speak for themselves but, spending some time in the plantations, you also start to warm to the oil palm habitat. It cannot compete with the beauty of lofty, emerald-green natural forest, but it can certainly be quite pleasant: the birds chirping, the sun shining, the workers chatting away, and grand views of rolling starbursts in every direction. As I am finding out, oil palm harbours some interesting wildlife too – like the short-tailed mongoose. I had a great experience following one for more than ten minutes, watching it whimper for its mate, re-unite and even have a skirmish with an angry Sumatran cobra.
If we are to retain more than the adaptable mongooses of this world – things like clouded leopards, sun bears and orangutans – then we need to try and work with the oil palm plantations to better design their landscapes. But we also need to work at a higher planning unit – we need to divert new plantations away from forested land (e.g. to the vast areas of natural and man-made grassland that exists in Borneo). In order to establish where the balance between these two approaches of extensification (designing heterogeneous landscapes of forest and oil palm) and intensification (stopping clearing of any forest whatsoever and focussing on increasing yields in existing plantations) should be, we need more information on what exactly can survive in the oil palm landscape, including the isolated remnants of forest (that’s where the SAFE project comes in). Surprisingly, given the intense media coverage given to the oil palm “issue”, very little primary research has actually been done on biodiversity in oil palm landscapes. Most of the literature, as Ed Turner and colleagues have recently shown, consists of people re-hashing the same, limited data (i.e. conducting meta-analyses). It also seems likely that the number of species thought to live in oil palm habitat has been routinely overestimated. This is because researchers often work at the oil palm / forest boundary (hey, we want to stay in rainforest lodges, not dengue-infested oil palm housing), so are recording species which may only rarely venture into oil palm (this problem repeatedly surfaced in a recent conference attempting to assess the prognosis for Borneo’s threatened small carnivores). A simple solution would be to always record the distance from the nearest forest edge with any species occurrence record, though this is rarely done.
My own project will hopefully shed light on all this from the mammal perspective. Even though mammals are a charismatic group, which often draws relatively more of the conservation budget, frustratingly the most basic questions still haven’t been answered when it comes to forest loss and oil palm plantations. These questions should be the bread-and-butter for conservation: for example, how much mammalian biodiversity is retained in fragments of different sizes and connectivity, and how many (and which) species simply drop out of the landscape all together? How important is intensively logged forest (the type of forest which is typically lost to oil palm) for mammals anyway? Are we better off focussing attention on the few areas of untouched old-growth forest remaining in Borneo? And what impact will changes in the composition and structure of mammalian communities have on key processes, such as the recruitment of canopy tree species, which together make for a functioning ecosystem in the long-term?
As a final quandary from my time in the oil palm landscape, on the morning of my last sampling day I heard a single gibbon (Hylobates muelleri, most likely a male) calling from one of the small riparian margins down in the valley. Hearing a gibbon in one of these remnant forest patches was notable enough, but the fact that it was a lone individual made it all the more poignant. Gibbons typically duet with their monogamous partners, so it made me wonder whether it had a mate and, if so, why it too wasn’t singing. Perhaps it was indeed alone, now cast adrift in an ocean of oil palm, i.e. the ecological equivalent of the living dead. As if to drive this point home, it was soon joined by, and then promptly drowned out by, the sound of a high-powered chainsaw coming from a neighbouring valley.
Written April 2011