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Biofuel Crop Impacts on Wildlife [#79]
The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is concerned about the oil palm and soya industries with respect to their impact on global land use, specifically the further conversion of natural forest.  The development of oil palm plantations has been the single most significant factor in the destruction of tropical forests in Asia, and growing world demand for soya is the primary driver for clearing the Amazonian rainforest. Conversion of tropical forest wildlife habitats is, in turn, the greatest current cause of biodiversity loss on a global scale.

WCS’s objective is to ensure the long-term persistence of ecologically viable populations of animal species in the wild. Oil palm plantations and land converted for soybean production, no matter how carefully managed, are not viable habitat for the vast majority of wild species that occur in natural forests. Moreover converted lands can provide barriers to the movement of wildlife between natural forest areas fragmented by development.

Production of oil palm is not sustainable in the context of biodiversity conservation if it has resulted from recent conversion of suitable wildlife habitat or if it compromises connectivity between wildlife areas.   It is important to note that suitable wildlife forests include not only primary forests, but also some selectively logged forests, which may still harbor a wide diversity of species, particularly if hunting has been controlled.  So little natural forest is left in Southeast Asia that additional conversion of such forest, for whatever reason, may be incompatible with basic principles of sustainability.

While displacement of traditional fuels with biofuels may theoretically result in lower net carbon emissions, this positive effect is far outweighed by the immediate and severe impact of habitat destruction and loss of connectivity if large tracts of forest are converted for energy production.

For example, the maps posted at show how oil palm suitability maps, developed by the FAO, related to areas important for (1) tigers, (2) Asiatic black bears, (3) sun bears, (4) sloth bear, and (5) lowland tropical forest generally.  Gray areas on the maps show areas that are already converted.  Although this is a very simple overlay, it indicates that expansive development of oil palm in Southeast Asia could compromise wildlife areas, either directly (through habitat loss) or indirectly (through loss of connectivity.) 

Based on our current understanding of the quality and scope of existing forest land in Southeast Asia, we believe there is opportunity for the expansion of palm oil production without additional destruction of natural forest habitat. Rubber plantations and other underutilized agricultural or degraded lands are potential areas for additional palm cultivation. However, the situation of soya in South America is more complex, as nearly all increased soya production will result in clearance of natural forest. Given that increased production is a virtual certainty, we believe that the soya industry should engage with Brazilian (and other affected national) conservation planning authorities to establish regional-scale plans for the scope and intensity of soy production that take into account the long-term needs of wildlife, water provisioning and other ecosystem services provided by natural forest lands.

There are similar concerns with expansion of ethanol production. For example, plans to increase biofuel in the US could place at risk at least half of the 14.6 million ha of land set aside under the US Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The Conservation Reserve areas are typically on highly erodible land that has been restored with native grasses and trees. These areas have been critical for the ecological restoration of flyways and riparian areas in the American Midwest, and have allowed populations of grassland birds—which suffered serious declines due to agricultural expansion in the mid-20th century—to rebound.  Agricultural interests in the US have recently requested that some of CRP lands be released for fuel crop expansion.
posted on 2007-02-23 13:02 UTC by Krueger Linda Krueger, Wildlife Conservation Society

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