Comments on the IUCN Report: “Oil Palm and Biodiversity”

The new IUCN Report Oil Palm and Biodiversity has generated a considerable response in both the French and English media. This includes outlets such as The Guardian and Le Figaro.

Unfortunately, the coverage has simply repeated the reductive language of the executive summary, instead of examining the actual findings. Many of the findings in the report should be considered as positive for the palm oil sector, particularly the conclusions. However, there are two major problems that plague the report.

First, there are numerous scientific errors that punctuate the report, as outlined below.

Second, the IUCN is ‘pulling its punches’ – and it seems to be doing this to avoid offending activist NGOs. The IUCN seems almost embarrassed by the conclusions it has reached.

Why?

Because its conclusions go against the overly simplistic and irresponsible approach of many NGOs.

The following points should be noted.

On the areas of oil palm under cultivation, the IUCN states that phasing out and replacing oil palm with other oilseed crops will significantly increase the global area used for production of other vegetable oils, leading to potentially more significant social and environmental impacts. Meeting growing vegetable oil demand will have less impact on biodiversity if it comes from higher-yielding oil palm cultivation.

On deforestation, it states that:

  • The larger drivers of deforestation are cattle ranging, and local and subsistence agriculture and not oil palm cultivation;
  • In Africa and Asia, local and subsistence agriculture is a larger driver of deforestation than commercial, industrial-scale agriculture;
  • Pulp and paper plantations, fire-induced deforestation, small-scale agriculture and especially hunting are main threats to orangutans as well.

On biodiversity, it states that:

  • Oil palm may provide better habitat for local biodiversity compared to the other production systems it replaces;
  • Lands previously planted with oil palm have the capacity to recover and support additional biodiversity.

On carbon emissions, it notes that:

  • The potential to achieve carbon positive outcomes in the longer term is substantially greater than for other oil crops that replace forest as, despite its longer maturation phase, oil palm requires an order of magnitude less land to produce equivalent amounts of biofuel;

And the report also draws a number of other conclusions around what works in the field. For example, the imposition of blanket restrictions on palm oil imports provides no incentives for best practice.

Similarly, it points out clearly that through certification, the palm oil sector has done its part of the job regarding environmental protections and the other sectors should now do the same (other oil crops, mining etc.). Otherwise there is a risk of redistribution of the responsibility for deforestation. There are remaining knowledge gaps, related to socio-economic, cultural and financial impacts and also a need for further research in these areas.

But most of all, the IUCN report notes that palm oil is here to stay.

The planters and the field environmentalists have known this for years, without being listened to. NGOs prone to palm oil bashing, however, will be very disappointed to read that conclusion from such a prominent conservation body.

The IUCN also notes that at the time of writing, they were not able to evaluate the expansion of oil palm plantations onto unproductive anthropogenic savannahs, and the likely increase in biodiversity that could result.

Ultimately, there is a lesson here. The environmental aspects of palm oil should not be left in the hands of campaigning NGOs: their business model and approach is too often based on reductive communications. Instead, this should be the domain of rigorous and objective scientific practitioners.

However, not all is laudable about the IUCN report. Palm Oil Monitor has carefully read the IUCN report and notes the following scientific errors and inconsistencies in the text.

  1. The data is not comprehensive. IUCN claims that the report “presents the first comprehensive map of all globally planted industrial-scale oil palm” (page vi). This is noticeably wrong. The well-known oil palm plantations in Sierra Leone, Guinea Conakry, Sao Tome and at least one plantation in DR Congo (Boteka) are missing.
  2. Some definitions are incorrect. According to the botanical definition an oil palm is not a tree (as claimed 11 times in the report), but it is a large woody herb. Furthermore, the adequate solar radiation is 16-17 MJ/m2 per day, and not 16-17 GJ/m2 per day.
  3. Harvesting processes are not understood. Plantations are not left to lie fallow before a new cycle of replanting begins. The plantation is replanted immediately after cutting. The field remains uncultivated, unused, unproductive, etc. for just a couple of months. The cutting is done during the dry season, and the planting in the following rainy season. It’s exaggerated to call this a “fallow” period.
  4. There are numerous errors in yield calculation. For example, the calculation of 40 kilos/palm x 143 palms/ha= 5,7 T/ha (industrial yield) not 3,8 T/ha (which is a global mean, including smallholders). The genetic yield potential is 35 T tonnes of fresh fruit bunches (FFB) per hectare per year and not merely 11-18.
  5. Facts on Nigeria are wrong. Nigeria is not a palm oil exporter any more – it is mainly an importer. Additionally, the Nigeria data in Figure 6 include the yield from the natural palm grove (not only the industrial plantations and the smallholders) which creates a bias in the comparison between the countries. The natural palm grove is more than 1 million ha in size and produced an average yield of about 0,3T oil/ha/year (Corley, 2016). In the same way, Figure 8 might give an incorrect representation of Nigeria (i.e. does the 94% figure include the natural palm grove?).

In short, the IUCN report has much to recommend: it clearly concludes that palm oil isn’t the threat it is considered to be in the EU. This is a valuable and important conclusion.

But the public message being sold around the report is quite the opposite. Many conservation groups have used the IUCN report to describe palm oil as the major threat to biodiversity when this isn’t the case. The report does not say that. It’s difficult for any professional to admit they were wrong but doing so often leads to the best result.

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