Oil palm expansion in Indonesia: the case for trade-off analyses of ecosystem services

In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS), Lian Pin Koh and Jaboury Ghazoul present a modelling framework for analysing trade-offs between palm oil production, biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration.

Informing policy-makers about these trade-offs is essential in the face of rapidly expanding plantations and the newly established REDD mechanisms (with a possible wildlife premium as discussed here).

Using a scenario-based approach, the authors assessed the consequences of alternative pathways of oil palm expansion on the area of primary and secondary forests, on forest biodiversity (modelled using species-area models), carbon stocks (in biomass and peat soils) and annual rice production capacity. They show that biodiversity and forest conservation are compatible with the expansion of oil palm production, through appropriate selection of planted areas.

Our results suggest that the environmental and land-use tradeoffs associated with oil-palm expansion can be largely avoided through the implementation of a properly planned and spatially explicit development strategy

This rosy conclusion is tempered by the acknowledgement that striking the balance between the goals of biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration and palm oil production will require the expansion of oil palm plantations to be capped. Are we really willing to make this “sacrifice”?

The paper by Lian Pin Koh and Jaboury Ghazoul was critiqued by Sean Sloan and Nigel Stork (also in PNAS) for ignoring several spatial processes such as the aggregation of plantations. Lian Pin Koh and Jaboury Ghazoul downplayed the critique and argued for the usefulness of their tool for broad-based analyses of the issues in Indonesia.

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