Biodiversity conservation, rural livelihoods and sustainability of oil palm landscapes: problems and prospects

Bhagwat, Shonil A.; Cole, Lydia E. S. and Willis, Katherine J. (2012). Biodiversity conservation, rural livelihoods and sustainability of oil palm landscapes: problems and prospects. In: Simonetti, Javier A; Grez, Audrey A and Estades, Christian F eds. Biodiversity Conservation In Agroforestry Landscapes: Challenges And Opportunities. Santiago de Chile: Editorial Universitaria, pp. 117–130.



Global land area under agriculture has expanded by 3% over the last quarter century, occupying nearly 40% of the Earth's land surface (FAO, 2010). This expansion has been driven by increasing demand for food by the growing world population as well as by increasing standards of living in rapidly developing economies such as India and China (Hubacek et al., 2007). Requirement of more land for agriculture has caused deforestation and forest degradation in many parts of the world leading to a corresponding 3% decrease in forests globally over the last 20 years (FAO, 2010). The expansion of land area under agriculture has also been accompanied by intensification of land use over the last four decades (Rudel et al., 2009), with an emphasis on obtaining maximum possible yield per hectare (Khush, 2001; Godray et al., 2010a). In pursuit of efficiency, such agriculture has relied on the use of heavy machinery and agrochemicals in the form of fertilisers and pesticides, often making agricultural land inhospitable for biodiversity (Tilman et al., 2001; Geiger et al., 2010). ...

The quest for maintaining biodiversity in oil palm plantation landscapes has thus led to two sets of solutions: one at the landscape scale and the other at the plantation scale. The landscape scale solutions have included measures such as maintaining high conservation value forests (Fitzherbert et al., 2008) while plantation-scale solutions have included mixed cropping or agroforestry (Bhagwat and Willis, 2009). A combination of these has also been suggested to design oil palm plantation landscapes (Koh et al., 2009). Alongside enhancing ecological conditions in plantations, however, attention needs to be paid to social and economic conditions of local human populations, including plantation workers - issues that have been largely overlooked in the discourse on oil palm sustainability (Rist et al., 2010). While large-scale industrial planations are efficient and therefore favoured by the palm oil industry, this model of plantation management is not necessarily suitable for smallholder planters, working at a different scale and with fewer resources (Vermeulen and Goad, 2006). Equally, monoculture management is often quite alien to smallholder farmers and does not necessarily enhance their standard of living (Koczberksi and Curry, 2005; Rist et al., 2010). Here we review oil palm agriculture in the context of social and economic equity in addition to ecological sustainability and argue that smallholder-managed "wildlife friendly" plantations might hold the key to achieving the three aspects of sustainablity within this agricultural industry: ecological, social and economic. In addressing the sustainability of oil palm plantation landscapes, we examine first ways proposed for enhancing ecological conditions; second their implications for enhancing the social and economic conditions of people living in these landscapes; and third challenges and opportunities for oil palm agriculture in the future.

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