Palm oil is produced by pressing the fruit of oil palm trees, which grows in bunches. Photo: Mongabay

By Taran Volckhausen
21 June 2018

(Mongabay) – The large-scale expansion of oil palm has been a major driver of deforestation and biodiversity loss in many areas of the tropics. In Malaysia and Indonesia, where 85 percent of the world’s oil palm is cultivated, rampant industry growth over the past several decades has replaced rainforest with monoculture plantations, devastating wildlife in the process and leading Indonesia to issue bans on further expansion. But as demand for palm oil continues to rise, other countries are looking to pick up the slack.

Colombia’s oil palm industry aims to overtake Thailand to become the world’s third largest supplier of the plant-based oil commonly found in household products such as snack foods, ice cream, cosmetics as well as biofuels.

Known as a mega-biodiverse country, Colombia claims 74 distinct natural ecosystems with a biodiversity rate second only to Brazil. The country occupies 0.22 percent of the earth’s surface area but it houses about 10 percent of the species currently known on the planet.

According to the Environment Vice Minister Carlos Alberto Botero López, Colombia boasts fertile soils, but 40 percent have been degraded. The degradation processes that most affect Colombian soils are erosion, urban constructions and infrastructure, pollution from toxic substances, organic matter loss, salinization and desertification.

Further, Colombia’s forests and natural ecosystems are disappearing at an accelerating rate as deforestation shot up following a historic 2016 peace deal with the country’s formerly largest rebel group, the FARC.

While Colombia and Southeast Asia face their own individual environmental challenges, activists and researchers are concerned that oil palm’s expansion in Colombia following the 2016 peace deal could cause degradation to sensitive ecosystems and biodiversity loss as has happened elsewhere. […]

Research indicates oil palm plantations support far less wildlife compared to natural habitat. Biologist researcher at James Cook University Lain Pardo conducted a large-scale camera-trapping study across 2,000 square kilometres in the Eastern Plains region where the largest oil palm plantations are found. Pardo’s results, published last month in PLOS ONE, found that these big plantations are not suitable for most mammals native to eastern savannah ecosystems.

“We found that the number and diversity of species differed significantly between oil palm plantations and their neighboring forests, with the number of species inside oil palm plantations 47% lower, on average, than in the forest,” Pardo said. […]

These impacts aren’t felt only by mammals. A study published by Diana Tamaris at Colombia’s Universidad Nacional showed that bird diversity was 90 percent lower in oil palm plantations in eastern Colombia than in nearby forests. […]

Rodrigo Bernal, one of Colombia’s leading palm oil researchers, is also concerned about the impacts of commercial oil palm cultivation on the genetic integrity of native palm species.

In a conversation with Mongabay, Bernal pointed to studies by investigators and the Humboldt Institute and the Sinchi Institute that showed the most common oil palm species is classified as invasive in northern South America. [more]

As Colombia expands its palm oil sector, scientists worry about wildlife



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