A Malaysian perspective on oil palm agriculture

Guest post by Badrul Azhar

As soon as your plane touches down at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, you will spot your first oil palm plant (Elaies guineensis) in Malaysia. Even the airport company has its own oil palm plantation around the airport. One of the nearby transit hotels is surrounded by oil palm cultivation. Palm oil industry is still the mainstay of the country’s economy. A very successful casino company, an Islamic financing institution, state governments and public universities are directly involved in upstream palm oil business (i.e. commercial plantations). Because of that,  oil palm has become a common landscape feature in Peninsular Malaysia. I do not know for sure where you may escape from seeing this exotic crop species on the peninsula mainland (perhaps in the highlands?).

fig 1There is no doubt that oil palm forms the dominant agricultural landscape in this country, created by massive scale of forest or rubber tree conversion since colonial British rule. This tropical African-originated palm is a big success for palm oil producing countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia in terms of its economic revenues. I have studied oil palm birds since my Master Degree, and continue to work on it. First, I was fascinated by the Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus), a native game bird in oil palm plantations. Then during my PhD years, I studied the biodiversity patterns and processes in the production plantations.

fig 2I strongly believe that protecting biodiversity in human-modified landscapes (including oil palm plantations and smallholdings) is equally important as protecting native forest biodiversity. In my opinion, palm oil stakeholders could do a lot more to protect at least some farmland biodiversity in existing plantations. The current sustainable palm oil certification scheme (i.e. the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) has only emphasized the protection of rare or endangered species and high conservation value forest – but even these criteria are unmet in most plantations. In the future, an improved scheme should consider the whole animal community regardless of conservation status. In addition, the scheme should take into account biodiversity aspects (e.g. functional diversity) in the certification process. Those designing such a future scheme should assess what sort of conservation measures have been implemented by stakeholders in each oil palm plantation – clearly different measures will benefit different species, but most measures are better than none.

fig 3Recently, a research paper from my PhD thesis entitled ‘The influence of agricultural system, stand structural complexity and landscape context on foraging birds in oil palm landscapes’ has been published in IBIS (2013, volume: 155, pages 297–312). In this paper, my co-authors (most of them were my PhD supervisors) and I aimed to determine bird guild diversity in oil palm landscapes. We also compared this response metric between oil palm cultivation areas and peat swamp forest habitats. Similar to findings from studies that use bird species richness as response metric (including our earlier research paper published in Forest Ecology and Management 2011, volume: 262, pages 2306-2315), guild diversity in forest habitats was higher than in oil palm habitats.

fig 4But beyond this (somewhat obvious) comparison with native forests, our results also indicated that foraging guild diversity was influenced by stand-level attributes such as stand age, vegetation cover, epiphyte persistence and canopy cover. Each foraging guild exhibited unique responses to different oil palm management regimes and stand-level attributes.On this basis, we recommend palm oil stakeholders to implement multiple conservation measures in order to conserve oil palm bird community and functional diversity in plantations and smallholdings.

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3 thoughts on “A Malaysian perspective on oil palm agriculture

  1. Nice blog post – glad to see Badrul doing well, we did our MScs together many years ago…

    I have a few questions though.

    Logged forests retain quite a lot of their biodiversity value as well as carbon in the form of biomass. As highlighted by work in Borneo (Berry et al, Andrews et al etc) these logged over forests can often be converted to other land uses, often with much more dramatic effects.

    Wouldn’t it be best to invest limited conservation funds and resources into stopping logged forest in SE Asia being converted to other land uses?

    In addition, what species do you find in palm oil plantations? Any threatened species? I would imagine that you tend to get generalist species and almost no forest specialists. Given that these are the species that are of highest conservation concern, what is the conservation value of palm oil plantations – even when best practice is used?

  2. Badrul’s answer, pasted by Joern due to a technical issue:
    Thanks for your questions, Philip. Yes, we studied together at the same university between 2006 and 2007.

    I could not disagree that oil palm expansion should be no longer occurring at the expense of logged or primary forest. Not sure about the rest of Southeast Asia countries, but I believe conservation funds are not a problem for Malaysia to support the protection of protected reserves. The problem may directly lie in the lack of political will. One of the palm oil stakeholders is sponsoring a major ecological experimental project in Sabah to understand how logging, deforestation and forest fragmentation modify the functioning of tropical rainforest. However, I am concerned that while stakeholders are busy investing their CSR money elsewhere, most of their oil palm plantations are continuing to do ‘business as usual’. Protected reserves in Malaysia are surrounded by commercial plantations and hence these plantations are being visited by some forest species. For this reason, forest animals are vulnerable to poachers (including plantation workers), pesticides, introduced predators (e.g. feral dog and cat), and road hazards. With the implementation of ‘biodiversity-friendly’ management policy, I hope that existing oil palm plantations are not going to be population sink habitats for forest species.

    For your 2nd question, I recorded 108 bird species including forest birds, migratory species, and water birds from fieldwork at oil palm habitats. The oriental-pied hornbill and Raffle’s malkoha are some of the forest visitors that can be found in oil palm habitats (see the photos). Only one high conservation value species was detected. In retrospect, we need to remember that the famous Passenger Pigeon was very common in North America, estimated around 3 to 5 billion, before it went extinct in the early 1900s due to overhunting and habitat loss. And the same goes for any species including common ones before it is too late to stop their extinction from happening. That is why I suggest that an improved certification scheme for sustainable palm oil production should include all species regardless of their conservation status.

    • Good reply.

      I trust you on the political will side of things being the major issue since oil palm is such big business. Is there any political will to stop conversion of degraded forests to oil palm?

      Also I agree that from the little time I have spent in Malaysia much of the forest on the peninsular that remains is surrounded by oil palm. It would be interesting to see how species composition changes in plantations with distance from edges of forest – that way you could have a look at the edge effects and their influence in what you find in the plantations.

      I take your point regarding endangered species but don’t completely agree. We should still prioritise the most endangered species that we think we can save.

      I think a better way to argue the importance of more common species is to link them to ecosystem services. For example are there any bird species that eat pests you find in oil palm plantations. If there are you have found a potential argument for their conservation regardless of how endangered they are.

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