Certified Palm Oil Isn't Saving Orangutans Yet - But It Could

This century 100,000 orangutans have been killed, predominantly to make space for palm oil plantations. Certified plantations are not helping much yet, but could with realistic changes. arikbintang/Shutterstock

Palm oil production is unleashing a catastrophe on the rainforests of Borneo, producing heartrending images of distraught orangutans and worldwide boycott campaigns. In an effort to stop the disaster, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification was established to offer consumers palm oil that supports the people of the regions where it comes while not killing the local wildlife. The first detailed study of how RSPO certified plantations are performing suggests they're not meeting most of their goals, but the authors are optimistic improvement is possible.

Global attention focuses on the clearing of rainforests to make way for plantations. Courtney Morgans, a PhD student at the University of Queensland, told IFLScience all RSPO palm oil concession are audited frequently to check rainforest on their land has not been destroyed. However, this is far from the whole story.

Although orangutans and many other rainforest species cannot live permanently in plantations, they use them extensively to move between primary rainforest, and can support themselves there for periods of time, Morgans said. One RSPO goal is to have certified plantations be more supportive of the great apes' migrations, but as Morgans explained in a statement: “We found palm plantations with certification did not excel compared to their non-certified equivalents when it came to protecting the orangutans.”

Similarly, certified palm oil is intended to improve the livelihoods of local populations, but Morgans reports in Environmental Research Letters that when she and her co-authors tried to measure this, they came up blank. “There also wasn’t a clear sign that RSPO was improving levels of wealth or improving access to health infrastructure for villagers neighboring the plantations,” she said. 

The one way Morgans could find in which RSPO-certified plantations actually were better was a surprising one; producing a small but significantly higher yield of oil for the same amount of land. Increases in yield reduce the pressure to destroy more rainforest, but Morgans thinks the yield probably reflects wealthier companies having more capital to invest in better agriculture, rather than programs targeted at sustainability.

The solution, Morgans thinks, is not to abandon the idea of sustainable palm oil. She told IFLScience palm oil yields around 10 times as much oil per unit of land as alternatives such as canola. Instead, she advocates the RSPO incorporates clearer definitions, replacing undefined phrases like “high-value species” and “high carbon value”. Morgans also said species protection needs to focus at the landscape level, rather than ending at a particular concession's boundaries, with migration paths between regions of forest protected.

Although Morgans says she is not an expert on biofuels, she questions whether the lower prices and reduced consumer pressures relative to food products will allow palm oil fuel to ever be sustainable.

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