Palm Oil: Spare or Share?

Oil palm plantations viewed out the left-hand side of the plane from Kota Kinabalu to Lahad Datu stretch as far as the eye can see

Flying east from Kota Kinabalu to Lahad Datu in the northern Bornean state of Sabah, Malaysia gives two conflicting views of tropical forests. For those on the right-hand side of the plane, the view is a complex rainforest matrix of blues and greens representing some of the most biologically diverse forest on earth. For those on the left-hand side of the plane the story is very different; the reserve area surrounding Mt. Kinabalu rapidly falls away to a seemingly infinite horizon of pontillist green palms. This grand landscape exploitation for palm oil has been forcefully pictoralised in the diagrams of forest destruction seen in Gaveau et al 2014 – a root-like matrix of roads bringing palm oil to all but the most inaccessible areas of the island. This project can be thought of as a grand land sparing project, in which the intensification of agriculture allows for a similarly expansive reserve structure (seen in, for instance, Maliau Basin and Danum Valley).


In 2005, Green et al’s paper on Farming and the fate of wild nature suggested two general strategies for trading off nature conservation and agriculture on a plot of land – either spread the agriculture and the conservation over the whole plot (sharing) or intensify the agriculture in one area and gazette the rest for conservation (sparing). With oil palm production having doubled between 2003 and 2010 and almost 300 000 hectares of forests being converted to palm oil each year (Vijay et al 2016), the question of how to balance the demand for this ubiquitous product and the need to avert a sixth mass extinction of life on earth becomes ever present. The forcefulness of Green et al‘s paper demands an investigation into the impact of incorporating elements of conservation into oil palm landscapes but despite palm oil representing around 30% of the global vegetable oil market, and future vegetable oil expansion likely to be in palm oil, there are few empirical studies on the viability of land sharing strategies.

One study that has investigated this land sparing / land sharing debate is Edwards et al 2010. Based in Sabah, they looked at the abundance and species richness of birds in forest fragments of different sizes surrounded by oil palm (with large forest fragments within the landscape representing land sharing). The headline figure for their data is that, despite fragment size correlating with abundance and richness, to get levels similar to pristine forest, you would need fragments of 25 000 ha within the oil palm landscape. They supplemented this research by looking at the sorts of species that are present in the different landscapes and found that the fragments in the oil palm plantations were more like those in oil palm than in pristine forest. They concluded this by stating that “Wildlife-friendly oil palm plantations fail to protect biodiversity effectively”.

Despite the debate between land sparing and sharing providing a useful framework for coarse-scale theorising, there are some serious issues with the framework as it is applied on the ground. One clear issue is that of scale; the conservation of hedgerows on the edge of a field is land sparing (in that an area is being gazetted off for conservation) but as one zooms out from the scene and looks at multiple fields with multiple hedgerows it starts to appear a lot more like land sharing. This has potential issues for making planning decisions based on empirical sparing/sharing studies as most of the studies are not explicit about this issue of scale (Kremen et al 2015).

Further, just looking at the direct biological impact of a management scheme does not take into account the wider governance strategies that can, in some cases, even reverse the general expectation that land sparing will have a higher overall biodiversity. One fascinating example of this comes from Peru, where researchers found that smallholders, whilst taking up more land in total, used less of the old growth land than large agri-businesses. In this case, as only the large industrial groups could negotiate for the secure land tenure of the old growth forests, the smallholders that employ a generally more land-sharing approach did not encroach on the biodiversity-rich old-growth forests (Gutierrez-Velez, 2011).

Gutierrez-Velez 2011 show that despite smallholders using more land overall, they use less of the old-growth forest

Similarly, in 2014 Lee et al took a modelling approach to oil palm planning on Sumatra and predicted which land would be taken up by either a shift to more smallholders or to more industry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a shift to smallholder dominance lead to higher levels of lowland forest loss. However, a hybrid approach that has an increase in yield and efficiency of smallholders does not show this loss in forest and has positive socioeconomic benefits.

All this is to say that perhaps the debate between land sharing and land sparing could be made more interesting and real-world through a fuller understanding of the multidimensional, multiscalar issues that such a complicated industry contains. As oil palm expands into new frontiers a shift from an either/or biodiversity/production trade-off to something more complicated, a both/and framing (Kremen et al 2015) with an understanding of these issues, may be the only way to ensure that we can feed the world’s human population whilst keeping our companion species alive for the ride.



Edwards, D. P., Hodgson, J. A., Hamer, K. C., Mitchell, S. L., Ahmad, A. H., Cornell, S. J., & Wilcove, D. S. (2010). Wildlife-friendly oil palm plantations fail to protect biodiversity effectively. Conservation Letters, 3(4), 236–242.

Gaveau, D. L. A., Sloan, S., Molidena, E., Yaen, H., Sheil, D., Abram, N. K., … Meijaard, E. (2014). Four Decades of Forest Persistence, Clearance and Logging on Borneo. Plos One, 9(7).

Green, R. E., Cornell, S. J., Scharlemann, J. P. W., & Balmford, A. (2005). Farming and the fate of wild nature. Science, 307(5709), 550–555.

Gutierrez-Velez, V. H., DeFries, R., Pinedo-Vasquez, M., Uriarte, M., Padoch, C., Baethgen, W., … Lim, Y. L. (2011). High-yield oil palm expansion spares land at the expense of forests in the Peruvian Amazon. Environmental Research Letters, 6(4).

Kremen, C. (2015). Reframing the land-sparing/land-sharing debate for biodiversity conservation. In A. G. Power & R. S. Ostfeld (Eds.), Year in Ecology and Conservation Biology (Vol. 1355, pp. 52–76).

Lee, J. S. H., Garcia-Ulloa, J., Ghazoul, J., Obidzinski, K., & Koh, L. P. (2014). Modelling environmental and socio-economic trade-offs associated with land-sparing and land-sharing approaches to oil palm expansion. Journal of Applied Ecology, 51(5), 1366–1377.

Vijay, V., Pimm, S. L., Jenkins, C. N., & Smith, S. J. (2016). The Impacts of Oil Palm on Recent Deforestation and Biodiversity Loss. Plos One, 11(7), 19.

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