New study helps ease environmental impact of palm oil production

Palm oil production has a huge effect on the environment, with large areas of ecosystems cleared to make way for plantations. But there are ways to ease the environmental impact, says a new study.

Large areas of tropical forests and other ecosystems have been cleared for monoculture oil palm plantations to meet the exploding demand for palm oil.

This subsequently destroys critical habitat for many endangered species, including rhinos, elephants and tigers.

Now however, a new study has looked at how to make the process easier on the environment, with factors including dense undergrowth vegetation and canopy cover linked to an improvement in mammal diversity in palm oil sites.

James Cook University PhD student Lain Pardo studied the palm oil industry in Colombia – a country described as being on the “tip of the spear” in terms of burgeoning palm oil production, according to a statement.

Using a new camera trapping technique across 2,000 square kilometres of the country’s most important palm oil production region, the researchers found that the number and diversity of species differed significantly between oil palm plantations and their neighbouring forests.

“The number of species inside oil palm plantations was 47 per cent lower, on average, than in the forest,” explained Mr Pardo.

He added that within the plantations, the number of different species declined as the number of cattle in the plantation rose, but species numbers were helped by the presence of dense undergrowth vegetation and proximity to forest.

With warnings from the Colombian government that land used to grow oil palms will double to about one million hectares by 2020, the scientists are calling on oil palm growers to “promote undergrowth vegetation and avoid cattle presence inside plantations, along with respecting designated buffer areas that allow for the conservation and restoration of riparian forests.”

Photo credit: CIFOR/ CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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