Tropical forests have always held great allure for me. Growing up in Iowa, my most memorable experiences of the tropics happened at home, where I poured over every issue of National Geographic, read books by explorers and dreamed of going to the same places myself.
In university, I began working in tropical forests and was hooked! I had the privilege of working with researchers and indigenous groups in Madagascar and the Ecuadorian Amazon, where I learned about the biodiversity of these ecosystems and the wonderful cultures of people that inhabit them. Sadly, I was also seeing firsthand the magnitude and complexity of the threats facing tropical forests, including petroleum extraction, logging, mining, urbanization and agricultural expansion. I also saw the importance of these same industries and products to local people as well as the global consumer population. I came to realize that halting deforestation means addressing the needs of people as well as those of the natural ecosystems.
When I returned to school for my doctorate in conservation biology, it was specifically with the aim of studying the drivers of tropical deforestation. My time working in the Ecuadorian Amazon inspired me to begin by examining recent deforestation in the Neotropics. This made me more aware of the emerging threat of deforestation for oil palm plantations in South America. Combining this knowledge with the well-documented deforestation for oil palm plantation expansion in Indonesia and Malaysia made my colleagues and me worried about other palm oil producing regions.
Finding vulnerable forests
Through discussions with our collaborators at UCS, we identified the need for a study that examines deforestation for oil palm plantation expansion in many regions of the world to inform policy that better protects tropical forests and their biodiversity.
Palm oil is produced from oil palm plantations primarily within the tropical moist forest biome. This means that, at one time, all of these plantations were tropical forest. However, we were interested in where to look for future deforestation. One place to look is in areas that have seen recent deforestation for oil palm plantations. In our study, published this week in PLOSONE, we evaluated this by asking: how recently were current plantations converted from natural forest? We also looked at the areas climatically suitable for oil palm expansion and how many vulnerable bird and mammal species live in these places. Watch a brief video summary of our study.
Lessons from the past
In the countries we studied, we saw clear regional trends: high deforestation during the study period (1989-2013) in South America and Southeast Asia and low levels of deforestation in the same period in Mesoamerica and Africa. This tells us of the need for increased monitoring of oil palm agriculture in both regions, especially as South American oil palm agriculture expands.
Another lesson we learned is that countries in the study with high levels of deforestation for oil palm in the recent past also have unprotected forests covering much of their oil palm-suitable area. However, not all countries with such vulnerable forests have seen recent deforestation. This is both alarming and a reason for hope: there is a threat of continued deforestation from oil palm expansion, but it is not too late to act to prevent it.
We have lost many tropical forests to different threats, but there are still forests worth saving in all regions of the tropics. One of the things we learned about forests threatened by oil palm expansion is that they are all biodiverse, but in different ways. For example, while the Amazon and Indonesia may have many species of globally threatened mammals and birds, other areas like the Congo Basin and the coastal forests of Colombia house species with small ranges that make them very vulnerable to habitat loss despite not being classified as threatened by the IUCN.
Where we go from here
As we, the consumers, become more aware of the ubiquitous presence of palm oil in the products we consume, we are also gaining greater power to demand more responsible sourcing from companies. The Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), a group made of more than 400 companies, has promised to achieve net zero deforestation by 2020. If implemented, this would significantly reduce deforestation associated with palm oil production. UCS is working to hold member companies to their word by using consumer pressure to push member companies to make their own pledges and plans for deforestation-free palm oil and by pushing for more transparency and traceability in palm oil sourcing. By knowing exactly where our palm oil comes from, we can ensure that it is being produced without future deforestation and loss of biodiversity.
Varsha Vijay, a PhD student in Stuart Pimm’s Conservation Biology Lab at Duke University, has focused her research on the impacts on industrial activity on deforestation, specifically in Ecuador and Peru. Most recently, she has been studying the potential global impacts of oil palm production, as well as how potential expansion of oil palm activities may impact the remaining forest and biodiversity of tropical areas. To learn more about Varsha’s research, visit her website.
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