12/05/2009 (Straits Times, Singapore), - PALM oil plantations are responsible for deforestation and biodiversity loss in Malaysia and Indonesia, scientists say.
But, they add, these can be managed to a limited extent.
Together, Malaysia and Indonesia produce about 80 per cent of the world's palm oil, which has a variety of uses - for food, fuel, the cosmetics industry and others.
Last year, Malaysia produced just under 22 million metric tonnes of palm oil, worth RM65 billion (S$27 billion), and Indonesia is fast catching up.
And as demand for alternative fuels to cut carbon emissions rises, so does demand for palm oil, which can be used for biodiesel.
But Singaporean scientist Koh Lian Pin said that between 1990 and 2005, 55 to 59 per cent, or 0.8 million to 1.1 million hectares, of Malaysia's new oil palm developments were cultivated on former forest lands - meaning that forests were being cut down for plantations.
The same was true of Indonesia, with over half of new oil palm plantations in the same period coming from forests.
Dr Koh, now a research fellow at Swiss technological institute ETH Zurich, presented his findings at a conference at the National University of Singapore (NUS) on Tuesday.
At the conference, organised by Yale University, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and NUS, industry players, scientists and NGOs, discussed the impact of oil palm cultivation.
Dr Koh also surveyed the number of bird and butterfly species in oil palm estates, and noted that plantations generally held just a quarter of the species contained in primary forests.
He recommended measures to safeguard biodiversity, such as expanding plantations only into non-forested areas, and protecting primary and secondary forest.
Responding to Dr Koh's comments, Dr Kalyana Sundram of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council said the council had a RM20 million (S$8.3 million) grant to fund wildlife conservation projects.