Pierre Bois D’Enghien The Oil Palm

Protéger la biodiversité et les ressources naturelles

La biodiversité et les ressources naturelles sont-elles bien protégées au sein de la filière huile de palme ? Les petits producteurs, premiers sur le terrain, avancent-ils efficacement vers davantage de durabilité ?

Tout d’abord commençons par resituer le contexte. En termes de gain de productivité, il est utile de rappeler que pour une même quantité d’huile végétale produite, le palmier à huile a besoin de 8 à 10 fois moins de superficie qu’une autre culture oléagineuse annuelle.

La conséquence directe étant que parce qu’elle nécessite moins d’espace, la culture de du palmier à huile permet au petit producteur de préserver plus d’espaces naturels et, par cela, plus de biodiversité.

Ensuite si on s’attache à la plantation elle-même et qu’on la compare aux autres cultures, il est clair que le palmier à huile héberge plus de biodiversité. Comme plante arborescente, elle crée un habitat pour plusieurs dizaines d’espèces végétales et animales. Les plantes épiphytes s’y développent harmonieusement et beaucoup d’insectes (fourmis, etc.) y trouvent des zones favorables à leur développement. C’est loin d’être un désert de biodiversité, comme peuvent l’être les cultures de soja ou de colza.

Enfin si on en vient maintenant aux mesures conservatoires, on constate que la filière industrielle a développé un process unique et fait des efforts considérables pour la préservation et le développement de la biodiversité. Les Principes et Critères RSPO apportent une attention importante à la préservation de la biodiversité et des ressources naturelles (sol, énergie, air, eau).

La couverture du sol par les plantes légumineuses et l’interdiction de planter sur les pentes trop fortes, limite l’érosion et la destruction des sols.

L’utilisation de biocombustibles (coques et fibres provenant de l’usinage lui-même) pour produire électricité et vapeur, limite le recours aux énergies fossiles au strict minimum.

La plantation de palmier à huile n’a besoin que de très peu de produits phytosanitaires et d’engrais chimiques pour être saine et rentable; la production d’huile « issue de l’agriculture biologique » est aisée et permet de protéger les ressources en eaux de surface et souterraines.

Un rendement élevé qui permet de concentrer la productivité sur de faibles superficies, une culture qui héberge naturellement de nombreuses espèces, des mesures conservatoires très strictes mises en œuvre par la filière… la biodiversité et les ressources naturelles sont entre de bonnes mains, celles de petits producteurs soucieux de préserver leur environnement.

By Pierre Bois d'Enghien

Pierre Bois D’Enghien is an agronomist and agricultural expert from Belgium. He has spent his career advising African and international companies about agriculture and sustainability, including SOCFIN in the Cote d’Ivoire, the Feronia group in Congo, and the Belgian companies Condroz Energies. He is an acknowledged expert on plantation agriculture, including palm oil.

Authors Pierre Bois D’Enghien

Protecting Biodiversity and Natural Resources

As an expert in environment and agriculture, I have been studying and working with oil palm for many years. I have worked with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and many other sustainability-focused initiatives, and the question of protecting biodiversity is always at the top of people’s minds.

A question many people ask me is whether biodiversity is well-protected within the palm oil industry? Are the small producers, for example, advancing effectively towards greater sustainability?

First, we must start by looking at the context. In terms of productivity gains, it is worth recalling that for the same amount of vegetable oil produced, oil palm needs 8 to 10 times less surface area than other perennial oilseed crops.

The direct consequence is that because it requires less space, the cultivation of oil palm allows small producers to preserve more natural areas, and therefore, more biodiversity.

Then, if one focuses on the plantation itself compared to other crops, it is clear that oil palm hosts more biodiversity. As a tree plant, it creates a habitat for dozens of plant and animal species. Epiphytic plants develop there harmoniously and many insects (ants, etc.) find en environment there, which is favourable to their development. This is far more biodiverse than crops such as soy or canola.

There have been numerous studies examining biodiversity on oil palm plantations.

In Africa, for example, it has been well documented that oil palm provides edible resources for: chimpanzee species,[1] Thomas’s rope squirrels ; white-throated bee-eaters (Merops albicollis); southern yellow-billed hornbills ; and oil-palm vultures.

In Latin America, black vultures (Coragyps stratus)[2] and white-faced capuchins (Cebus capucinus)[3] are among the species living around and within oil palm plantations.

In Southeast Asia, the plant also provides a range of uses and habitats. According to one study in Sumatra, 38 non-domesticated mammals were found using palm oil plantations.[4] The report also noted that almost two-thirds of these have an important conservation value or are protected under national law, and 25% are listed as vulnerable or higher on IUCN red lists.

A study on the Malaysian peninsula suggested a thriving population of the banded pig (Sus scrofa vittatus[5]. Other animal life includes long-tailed (Macaca fascicularis) and pig-tailed (Macaca. nemestrina) macaques[6].

Bird species such as Pycnonotus goiavier, Prinia spp., Parus major, Copsychus saularis, and Halcyon smyrnensis are all visitors to oil palm plantations (Desmier de Chenon and Susanto, 2006), as well as threatened species such as blood pythons (Python brongersmai) and short-tailed pythons (Python curtus).

Even the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that: “When combined with agroforestry, palm oil plantations can increase food production locally and have a positive impact on biodiversity.”

When it comes to precautionary measures now, we see that the sector has developed a unique process and made considerable efforts for the preservation and development of biodiversity. RSPO’s Principles and Criteria for example, pay significant attention to the preservation of biodiversity and natural resources (land, energy, air, water).

Soil cover by leguminous plants and the planting ban on slopes that are too steep, limiting erosion and soil destruction, are examples. The use of biofuels (shells and fiber from the processing itself) to produce electricity and steam, limits the use of fossil fuels to a minimum.

Oil palm plantations need few pesticides and chemical fertilizers to be healthy and profitable; in addition, farmers have developed integrated pest management techniques (pheromones to trap insects, creating attractive hedges and bushes that can serve as habitat for pest predators, maintaining an owl nest every 25 ha to promote the circulation of birds of prey that feed on rats, etc.). Thus, oil production helps protect surface water and groundwater resources.

High efficiency levels allow the industry to focus productivity in small areas, a culture that is naturally home to many species, with strict protective measures implemented by the sector … biodiversity and natural resources are in good hands, those of small and large palm oil producers anxious to preserve their environment.

I’ll be visiting Malaysia in the first part of 2016 to conduct further field research on the biodiversity in oil palm plantations, and the wider environmental conservation efforts undertaken in the country. I’ll be talking to companies, NGOs, officials, and other stakeholders, and I will be updating this blog with details of my findings.


[1] Humle T and Matsuzawa T (2004) Oil palm use by adjacent communities of chimpanzees at Bossou and Nimba Mountains, West Africa. International Journal of Primatology 25: 551–581; Leciak E, Hladik A, and Hladik CM (2005) The oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) and the cores of high biodiversity in gallery forests of Guinea in relation to human and chimpanzees commensalism. Revue d’Ecologie-La Terre et la Vie 60: 179–184; Sousa J, Barata AV, Sousa C, Casanova CCN, and Vicente L (2011) Chimpanzee Oil-Palm Use in Southern Cantanhez National Park, Guinea-Bissau. American Journal of Primatology 73: 485–497.

[2] Elias DJ and Dubost DVG (1982) Unusual feeding behavior by a population of Black Vultures. Wilson Bulletin 94: 214.

[3] McKinney T (2010) The effects of provisioning and crop-raiding on the diet and foraging activities of human-commensal white-faced capuchins (Cebus capucinus). American Journal of Primatology 73: 439–448.

[4] Maddox T, Priatna D, Gemita E, and Salampessy A (2007) The Conservation of Tigers and Other Wildlife in Oil Palm Plantations Jambi Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. London, UK: The Zoological Society of London. ZSL Conservation Report No. 7.

[5] Ickes K (2001) Hyper-abundance of native wild pigs (Sus scrofa) in a lowland dipterocarp rain forest of Peninsular Malaysia. Biotropica 33: 682–690.

[6] Meijaard Erik, and Sheil Douglas (2013) Oil-Palm Plantations in the Context of Biodiversity Conservation. In: Levin S.A. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, second edition, Volume 5, pp. 600-612. Waltham, MA: Academic Press.


By Pierre Bois d'Enghien

Pierre Bois D’Enghien is an agronomist and agricultural expert from Belgium. He has spent his career advising African and international companies about agriculture and sustainability, including SOCFIN in the Cote d’Ivoire, the Feronia group in Congo, and the Belgian companies Condroz Energies. He is an acknowledged expert on plantation agriculture, including palm oil.