A study conducted by the European Commission Joint Research Center (JRC) and Paris-based CIRAD (French Agricultural Research Center for International Development) suggests that future expansion of the palm oil industry could have a dramatic impact on African primates. Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the study reveals only a few small areas in Africa with a high suitability for oil palm cultivation and a low potential impact on the primate species living there.

Given the catastrophic impact of industrial oil palm plantations on wildlife in Southeast Asia, the researchers set out to produce a broad assessment of the expected effects of oil palm expansion on African primate diversity, highlighting the challenges that lie ahead. The researchers produced and then compared two maps, one on primate vulnerability and the other on suitability for oil palm cultivation.

The maps revealed striking similarities across sub-Saharan Africa, with areas of high primate vulnerability and high oil palm suitability overlapping in equatorial and forested regions across West and Central Africa.

The few areas that the researchers identified as “areas of compromise” totaled 0.13 million hectares (Mha), which is less than 0.005% of the total land mass of the African continent. Even when taking into account all areas with at least minimum suitability to grow the plants from which palm oil is extracted, just 3.3 Mha of land is available to produce the oil without endangering primate populations. This amounts to only 6.2% of the 53 Mha that would be required to cope with rising palm oil demand by 2050.

With the demand for palm oil steadily increasing, and the industry looking for new possibilities for expansion beyond Southeast Asia and South America, the study shows how it will be extremely challenging to reconcile conservation targets with future conversion of land to oil palm crops. To tackle the problem, the researchers suggest that government policies and retailer-led initiatives could help modify consumption patterns and reduce the increase in future global demand. However, this requires additional actions, among them raising consumer awareness about the environmental consequences of their lifestyle.

“There is already a momentum for change, with many people worldwide starting to realize how their daily choices can have a significant impact on far away, vulnerable ecosystems,” concluded Giovanni Strona, lead author of the study. “We hope that our findings could represent another important step in this constructive direction.”

Study (pdf)

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