CIFOR: Palm oil doesn’t have to spell disaster for forests


Experts: Controversial crop can be sustainable with proper ecological planning, management


BOGOR, Indonesia — Palm oil—used around the world in everything from foods to cosmetics to biofuels—can be developed without destroying vast stretches of tropical forests with the right planning and methods.

These are the conclusions of scientists Alain Rival and Patrice Levang in their book, “Palms of Controversies: Oil Palm and Development Challenges,” newly translated into English and published by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). In time for World Food Day, 16 October 2014, the book is being made available for free download here:

Media are invited to re-publish a review of the book as well as a video interview and transcript with co-author Patrice Levang, as long as they are attributed to CIFOR: 

Today, palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil on Earth; some 18 million hectares of land in the tropics have been planted with oil palm. In just a few decades, Indonesia has seen the conversion of more than 5 million hectares of primary forest, Malaysia more than 4 million, and Nigeria 1 million.

As a result, oil palm has been at the center of polarized debate. To the agro-food industry and many small-holder farmers in the tropics, it’s a veritable miracle crop—the highest-yielding oil crop known. But to many NGOs and indigenous groups, it’s a grave threat to land rights and the environment.

The real problem, according to the authors, is not the oil palm itself but the way people have chosen to exploit it.

Rival, of CIRAD, a French agriculture and development research center, and Levang, of CIFOR and the French environmental research institute IRD, draw on data and field experience to provide a comprehensive and nuanced picture of oil palm—a picture that has been largely lacking in the debate.

“Oil palm does not need to be planted on forest lands,” says Levang. “You can plant oil palm on savannahs, on degraded lands. So oil palm per se, is not responsible for deforestation.

“Our major take-home message in the book is, Don't confuse the crop [with] the people who develop it.”

Oil palm plantations, the authors contend, can be developed without destroying vast stretches of tropical forests. Development models for this include various agroforestry techniques, patchwork developments and ecological landscape planning.

The challenge, according to the authors, will be not to prevent expansion of the palm oil sector, but to encourage forms of development that will keep negative impacts on biodiversity and the well-being of local people to a minimum.

All stories, videos and photos related to this book were produced with Creative Commons Attribution-Non-commercial-Share Alike License. Media are welcome to use all content as long as it is attributed correctly to CIFOR.


The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) advances human wellbeing, environmental conservation and equity by conducting research to inform policies and practices that affect forests in developing counties. CIFOR helps ensure that decision-making that affects forests is based on solid science and principles of good governance, and reflects the perspectives of less-developed countries and forest-dependent people. CIFOR is one of 15 members of the CGIAR Consortium.

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