A collaborative partnership between RSPO oil palm grower member United Plantations Berhad (UP) and their project partner Copenhagen Zoo is demonstrating that palm oil and the environment can co-exist in harmony. The project, which was considered controversial when initiated in 2010, is now going from strength to strength.

Positive impacts of the programme
At a public ‘Palm Oil Seminar’ held at Copenhagen Zoo on 28 May, the zoo’s Southeast Asia Programme Director, Dr. Carl Traeholt, highlighted some of the positive impacts achieved so far, including measuring, monitoring and managing water quality in the main estate wetlands and streams, as well as the tracking of species such as leopard cats, black cobras and king cobras. He was also happy to report evidence of Borneo’s largest terrestrial predator – the clouded leopard – in rehabilitation areas of UP’s plantation boundaries in Kalimantan. Dr. Traeholt confirmed they are “having great success with leopard cats for pest control of rats, as opposed to barn owls, which are not native to the land there. We are also planning to start tracking other species such as orangutan, flat-headed cats, false gharial and pangolin,” he said.

A new approach to conservation and agriculture
Based on this evidence, Dr. Traeholt also explained the need for a shift in approach, moving away from relative measures in terms of conservation. “For example, with the orangutan, individuals from several small isolated populations must be managed as one meta-population. This means, some of the individuals must be moved around for genetic purposes,” said Dr. Traeholt. “The point is that these small populations should be managed in the wild and not neglected, captured or sent to rescue centres, unless they are in such poor health that they need to receive veterinarian care,” he continued. 

Dr. Traeholt confirmed it is sometimes possible to off-take rescue centre individuals by enriching habitat to sustain larger populations. The scheme also recommends reintroduction into areas where the species has been eradicated. “This approach could be used for other species as well,” he added. To provide additional context to his presentation and findings, Dr Traeholt shared a historical timeline of the world’s human population, its subsequent increase, and how this has impacted global food demand. He concluded that an increasing amount of land must be devoted to agriculture in order to sustain the population. To avoid more land grabbing, he sees yield improvement as one of the key challenges facing agriculture in general, and the palm oil sector in particular.

International oil palm and the UP partnership: breaking down the numbers
Next up at the Palm Oil Seminar in Copenhagen, UP Chief Executive Director and RSPO Co-Chair, Dato Carl Bek-Nielsen, shared a brief overview of the oil palm industry, how the crop is cultivated, and how efficient it is in terms of oil yield per hectare of land compared to other vegetable oil crops/ agricultural commodities. “Out of the 5 billion hectares of total global land area dedicated to agriculture (37%), 3.45 billion hectares (69%) is pasture for cattle. Furthermore, out of the 1.55 billion hectares of arable land for crops, oil palm represents just 0.4% of world agricultural land, yet it is the most scrutinised crop on the planet,” he said.

Also in attendance was Muhammad Silmi, who is the Manager of UP Group’s Biodiversity Division, comprising a 14-person team, to which Dr. Traeholt acts as an advisor. Mr. Silmi highlighted some of the key activities and milestones from the UP/Copenhagen Zoo partnership, including:

  • Approximately 150,000 jungle trees planted by 2018
  • Restoration of 260 hectares of jungle habitat
  • Evidence of Borneo’s largest terrestrial predator (clouded leopard) in rehabilitation areas
  • Long-term leopard cat and king cobra studies
  • Active participation in local and international conservation conferences
  • Support of government habitat restoration programmes

UP Group takes action against CO2 emissions and climate change
The event itself coincided with the European parliament elections, at which the topics of climate change and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions were frequently raised. Therefore, Dr. Traeholt and Dato Carl Bek-Nielsen both felt compelled to contribute to the dialogue. Dr. Traeholt focused on food waste, noting that each year an area bigger than China is lost or wasted (1.4 billion hectares, equal to 28% of the world’s agricultural land). Furthermore, the carbon footprint from the amount of food wasted is estimated to be 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 released into the atmosphere each year. On a more positive note, Dato Carl Bek-Nielsen shared that the UP Group has managed to reduce their CO2 footprint by an impressive 54% per tonne of palm oil produced since 2004. He also shared some of the key changes in the 2018 RSPO standards (rules and regulations that RSPO members must abide by in order to remain certified) and applauded the requirements regarding GHG emission assessments and reporting.

Bengt Holst, the Scientific Director of Copenhagen Zoo, brought the morning’s session to a close. He remarked how proud he was of the partnership with UP and noted that it has become an important part of the zoo’s operations. Most importantly, he highlighted the ways in which this innovative partnership demonstrates how people from diverse backgrounds, industries and sectors can cooperate to achieve a common goal.

The memorandum of understanding (MoU) between UP and Copenhagen Zoo was established in 2010 for a 5-year period and was renewed for another 5 years in 2016.

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