A worker shows palm oil fruit at a plantation in Topoyo village in Mamuju, Sulawesi Island, Indonesia. Akbar Tado Antara Foto via Reuters

Johannesburg - It’s happened to wildlife in Indonesia and Malaysia. Now a group of international scholars are worried that cultivation of the most widely used vegetable oil in the world could have the same devastating toll on Africa’s tropical forests primates.

In a recent study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the US (PNAS) journal, the team of researchers found that while profits derived from palm oil cultivation represents an important source of income for many tropical countries, including on the African continent, its future expansion is a primary threat to tropical forests and biodiversity.

“Although most industrial oil palm plantations are located in South East Asia, it is argued that much of their future expansion will occur in Africa.
"We found a high overlap between areas of high oil palm suitability and areas of high conservation priority for primates. Overall, we found only a few small areas where oil palm could be cultivated in Africa with a low impact on primates.” 

In regions where industrial palm production is still emerging, identifying “areas of compromise” - areas with high productivity and low biodiversity importance - could be a unique opportunity to reconcile conservation and economic growth, wrote the researchers, who included Stellenbosch University’s Dr Zoltan Szantoi, in the paper, Small room for compromise between oil palm cultivation and primate conservation in Africa. 

However, says Szantoi, a research associate from the geography and environmental studies department at Stellenbosch University and at the EU-JRC, their research found that “potential areas of compromise are rare across the whole African continent”.

“The demand for palm oil is expected to double by 2050,” explains Szantoi “which means that about 53Mha of additional land will have to be converted to oil palm plantations. However, according to our findings, Africa could host only 3.3Mha with low impact on primates and such an area compared to the African land mass (3037Mha) is extremely small.”

The study noted that populations of many primate species are declining because of human activities such as agriculture, including oil palm cultivation, logging and mining.The researchers say there is also no indication that the demand for oil palm will reduce in future with the oil used for about 30% of the world’s vegetable oil production and growing in importance as a biofuel source.

It is also a major contribution to economic growth in the countries in which it is extracted.
“It has been argued that future population growth will be paired with a dramatic increase in palm oil demand and that a considerable amount of future land conservation to cope with this will occur in Africa.

Consistent with dramatic effects of palm oil cultivation on biodiversity in southeast Asia, “reconciling a large-scale development of oil palm in Africa with primate conservation will be a great challenge.

“Consumers should be smart, but for that we need proper education as well as more areas under protection,” explains Szantoi. “From other studies we have also learned that areas under protection are very likely to keep their flora and fauna intact, while right at the border/edges of those protected areas, the destruction is visible.

“Thus, by increasing the protection we increase the likelihood of conservation’s success. Of course, wildlife exists outside of protected areas as well, but as you could see from our paper, it decreases significantly. 

“Also, we have to keep in mind that primates are ‘flag’ species - ie if they decrease, other species very likely suffer too.”
Companies, too, should take responsibility. 

“If the producers select areas responsibly and/or focus on not clearing new lands but rather increasing yield on existing locations that would help too. Those companies, which produce palm oil in a responsible way, could be ‘promoted’ to the general public, through already existing certification schemes, as well as through some sort of government tax incentives.”

The Saturday Star