Scientific review shows oil palm plantations hurt biodiversity

Biofuels offer a promising way to respond to energy demand, but what are the consequences for native forest species?
Biofuels are considered beneficial to society because their production can help increase rural incomes, reduce poverty levels, restore degraded lands and promote economic development.

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BOGOR, Indonesia — New research reveals that oil-palm plantations established on primary or secondary forests are unsuitable habitats for the majority of forest-dwelling native species, a finding that indicates biodiversity may be compromised, according to a new report.

Concerns over growing energy demand and the impact of fossil fuels on climate change and global warming have led to an increased interest in developing plant-based biofuels — such as those sourced from the oil palm and other plant materials which — at least in theory — offer a promising way to respond to energy demand  without increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Biofuels are also considered beneficial to society because their production can help increase rural incomes, reduce poverty levels, restore degraded lands and promote economic development.

On the downside for forests, expanding oil palm cultivation leads to deforestation and destroys natural habitats, said Sini Savilaakso, a tropical forest ecologist working with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“Currently, palm oil is produced mainly for food, meaning that cultivation for biofuel production has as yet made little contribution to land-use change patterns, but it’s important to understand the potential consequences of expanding biofuel cultivation on biodiversity and related ecosystem functions,” she said.


Scientists reviewed 25 research papers — curated from a whittled-down list of more than 9,000 — to see if industrial and smallholder cultivation of oil palm, soybean and the jatropha plant led to loss of biodiversity due to deforestation and fragmentation.

They searched out relevant peer-reviewed research papers in academic literature databases, Internet search engines, websites of specialist organizations and in bibliographies that included data on relevant subjects, exposure and outcomes.

Search parameters also ensured that the research was relevant — it must have been undertaken in the tropics, examined floral and faunal species and focused on areas where land had been converted from forest to plantation.

Due to a lack of available reports in a range of tropical forest countries and on soybean and jatropha, scientists ultimately focused their systematic review on oil palm plantations in Malaysia.

During their search, they also looked for literature that measured the effectiveness of such voluntary sustainable biofuel production standards as the principles established by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2004 and by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels in 2007.

Scientists learned that none of the studies had tried to assess the impact of such standards on biodiversity, and only a few indicated whether the plantations were complying with them, Savilaakso said.


An averaging method was used to calculate the mean change in the number of shared species between oil palm habitats and forests. All but one of the 23 studies reviewed contained information on species composition and showed a difference between forests and oil palm plantations.

In addition, only one study examined the differences of species richness and community composition between smallholder and industrial plantations. It showed that smallholdings comprised of trees planted at different times supported higher bird richness than industrial plantation estates with trees of a uniform age.

Overall, the review was limited due to a lack of landscape-level comparisons, Savilaakso said.

“Landscape-level studies could give us a better understanding of the impacts of biofuel crop cultivation on biodiversity and ecosystem function because we’d understand the broader impacts beyond simple habitat comparisons,” Savilaakso said.

A “landscapes approach” takes a holistic, integrated attitude toward improved land management.

“A variety of plant, animal and microorganism species is critical — all play large roles in maintaining the balance of the world’s biological diversity and stabilizing the environment,” Savilaakso said.

For more information on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Sini Savilaakso at or Manuel Guariguata at 

CIFOR’s research on biofuels and biodiversity is part of the CGIAR Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry and is supported by the UK Department for International Development, the government of Finland, ETH Zürich, and Agricultural Research for Development (CIRAD).

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