Tag Archives: Biodiversity

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. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1755-263X.2010.00107.x

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). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0101654

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. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1106049

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). https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/6/4/044029

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). https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.12845

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. https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.12286

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. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0159668

The last stand for the world’s largest mangrove forest

Figure 1. Chital deer standing in mangrove swamps. Source: Wikipedia.com

Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal share the world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, one of the Indian sub-continent’s most biodiverse ecosystems. Historically, emblematic Asian species, such as the Javan rhinoceros and leopards roamed the area, but they became locally extinct primarily due to human pressures. However, the ecosystem is still teeming with biodiversity: animals like the chital deer and the Irrawaddy dolphin inhabit the area and more than 90% of India’s mangrove plants exist here. Moreover, the only Bengal tigers adapted to living in mangrove forests make their final stand in the Sundarbans.

This region provides a multitude of ecosystem services, be they cultural, like education and recreation, or provisional, like seafood and timber. Most consequential, though, are its regulating services since the mangrove swamps provide a natural buffer against the tropical storms of South Asia. Furthermore, the Sundarbans provide carbon sequestration, having absorbed almost 4.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide in the present. According to a study conducted by the University of Calcutta, this amount is valued at nearly $79 billion on the international market.

Figure 2. Map showing the entirety of the Sundarbans. Source: Wikipedia.com

Climate change’s effects pose the greatest threat to the Sundarbans. Surging sea levels are leading the way, having risen at twice the global average since 1985, which is problematic since most of the region is less than one meter above sea level. Consequently, the mangroves are not photosynthesizing nearly as much nor are they regenerating like they have in the past. In addition, the increased frequency and intensity of cyclones is a destruction risk, threatening the livelihoods of both local people and wildlife.

Apart from climate change, however, deforestation is an ongoing trend. In fact, in the 20 years before 2009, forest cover was reduced by 5%. The loss of forest has triggered more human-animal conflict, which has led to the extirpation of several species. Moreover, erosion endangers the mangrove ecosystem, destroying mud dykes in which trees plant their roots, counteracting the protection they provide against the sea and cyclones. What is more, overfishing pressures the ecosystem even further. Also, adjacent cities’ pollution and oil docks have a huge impact on the wildlife that call the mangroves home. In fact, the risk of an oil spill is seen as another of the principal threats.

Picture2Figure 3. Predicted sea level rise impact on the Bangladeshi Sundarbans. The baseline is the year 2000. Source: Loucks et al., 2009.

In terms of conservation, there have been many efforts to preserve this ecosystem. In 1987, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making the Sundarbans world-renowned and better protected due to their intrinsic value. The region also became part of the Man and the Biosphere program, an initiative designed to simultaneously improve local people’s livelihoods and protect the environments shared with other species.

At the national level, India’s federal government made its part of the Sundarbans a protected biosphere reserve. The country also runs Project Tiger, a national tiger conservation program involved in the Sundarbans’ initiatives to protect the mangrove-adapted population. At the regional level, the state of West Bengal is developing an action plan on climate change that recognizes the dire need to protect the Sundarbans from this threat, as well as proposing different mitigation tactics. In Bangladesh, the Wildlife Act of 1974 controls the exploitation of the forest. For example, it imposes restrictions upon entry, fishing and hunting. While on paper these measures seem to be progressing, the governments hinder these efforts by struggling implement them.

In recent years, both national governments have implemented co-management projects to improve the financial conditions of local people by providing them with a role in forest conservation. Moreover, nearly 3000 km2 or 15% of the land is divided between seven protected areas. Presently, the condition of the Sundarbans is in a downwards spiral, but it has the potential to improve given the new collaboration between the two countries, along with the other efforts already being carried out.

Figure 4. The location of the Indian Sundarbans. Source: DasGupta & Shaw, 2015.

Among the challenges in effectively protecting the Sundarbans are the lack of climate change awareness and the economic pressure of adapting to climate change in two countries with high poverty. The Bangladesh Forest Department has, despite having various policies in place, inadequately protected the ecosystem because of poor bureaucratic implementation capacity, a major obstacle in the prevention of further degradation. The fear of man-eating tigers also strains a keystone species; humans are more likely to kill the animals out of fright and reducing the population of Bengal tigers has the potential to disrupt the entire ecosystem’s equilibrium.

Figure 5. Bengal tiger stalking through the Sundarbans forest. Source: Wikipedia.com

Going forward, if the Sundarbans are to be maintained, education about this magnificent ecosystem must take precedence where its relevance is greatest: in Bangladesh and India. In the struggle to mitigate catastrophic climate change, its importance as a natural fortification against the increased cyclone threat and as a carbon sequestration service must be at the fore of conservation education. Reforestation of mangrove species would be useful to protect against both cyclones and to conserve the habitat of forest-dependent species, as well as for carbon sequestration. In addition, ecotourism would promote learning, besides creating local employment opportunities. In fact, cooperation with the inhabitants of the Sundarbans should be one of the keys in conserving them because they will be protecting the forest for their own livelihoods, but at the same time, safeguarding society’s greater interests. The times of conservation without considering the needs of local people have passed and the Sundarbans present the perfect situation to for co-management between the state and the forest’s residents.

Climate change and its ensuing sea level rise are undoubtedly a challenge. Nonetheless, the collaboration between the Indian and Bangladeshi governments–with a strong focus on good governance, implementation and accountability–has the potential to be the key to ensuring a future for the Sundarbans.


1. Ghosh, P., 2015. Conservation and conflicts in the Sundarbans biosphere reserve, India. Geographical Review105(4), pp.429-440.

2. Loucks, C., Barber-Meyer, S., Hossain, M.A.A., Barlow, A. and Chowdhury, R.M., 2010. Sea level rise and tigers: predicted impacts to Bangladesh’s Sundarbans mangroves. Climatic Change98(1), pp.291-298.

3. Mahadevia, K. and Vikas, M., 2012. Climate change – Impact on the Sundarbans: A Case Study. Int Sci J Environ Sci2, pp.7-15.

4. Roy, A.K.D. and Gow, J., 2015. Attitudes towards current and alternative management of the Sundarbans Mangrove Forest, Bangladesh to achieve sustainability. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management58(2), pp.213-228.

5. Sánchez-Triana, E., Ortolano, L. and Paul, T., 2016. Managing water-related risks in the West Bengal Sundarbans: policy alternatives and institutions. International Journal of Water Resources Development, pp.1-19.

6. Sarker, S.K., Reeve, R., Thompson, J., Paul, N.K. and Matthiopoulos, J., 2016. Are we failing to protect threatened mangroves in the Sundarbans world heritage ecosystem?. Scientific reports6.