Palm oil: Boon and bane for the environment

Grace Chua, Straits Times 13 May 09;

JUST as the world is looking for alternative fuels that do not add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere when burned, palm oil seems to have stepped up to the plate.

After all, biodiesel made from the fruit of the oil palm produces 40 per cent less greenhouse gases than petrol when burned.

But the downside to oil palm plantations is that natural forests are being cleared to make way for them, and when these forests go, so do the plant and animal species native to them.

Balancing the gains and losses of oil palm cultivation was the focus of industry players, scientists and non-governmental organisations gathered for a conference at the National University of Singapore (NUS) yesterday.

The conference, titled Biofuels: The Impact of Oil Palm on Forests and Climate, was organised by NUS and the Environmental Leadership and Training Initiative - a collaboration between Yale University and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

The issue before the participants is particularly relevant to Malaysia and Indonesia, which together produce about 80 per cent of the world's palm oil.

Last year, Malaysia produced almost 22 million tonnes of this oil, worth $27 billion; Indonesia is fast catching up.

Besides its use as a biofuel, palm oil is also a source of food and an ingredient in the cosmetic industry, among others.

Singapore biologist Koh Lian Pin told the conference participants that between 1990 and 2005, between 55 per cent and 59 per cent of Malaysia's new oil palm plantations were developed on cleared forest land. This amounted to between 0.8 million ha and 1.1 million ha. Indonesia, too, gave up more than half of its forests to oil palm plantations.

Dr Koh, now a research fellow at Swiss technological institute ETH Zurich, also made a count of the number of bird and butterfly species in oil palm estates, and found that the plantations hosted just a quarter of the number of plant and animal species of primary forests.

Dr William Laurance of the STRI, the conference keynote speaker, said that given the pressing need for alternatives to fossil fuels, more could be done to reduce the harmful results of oil palm cultivation.

Forests should not be cleared for this, he declared.