Ecological management to benefit ecosystem services and sustainable production in smallholder oil palm systems in Malaysia and Indonesia

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Zoology


This project will build on a large-scale experimental project, based within large industrial oil palm plantations in Riau, Indonesia, that investigated the impact of varying herbicide use and manual cutting of understory vegetation on biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, resilience to drought, and palm oil yield. Key findings from the work included a positive effect of reducing herbicide use and allowing more understory vegetation to grow on predator numbers, plant diversity, soil biodiversity, rate of decomposition and below ground processes, but with only limited impacts on GHG emissions and yield. In addition to benefitting biodiversity and ecosystem processes in oil palm, reducing levels of herbicide spraying can also potentially save money and pollution risk through runoff of herbicides into waterways . Although these findings have been well-publicised for large-scale industrial plantations, they have not yet been disseminated to small-scale farmers ("smallholders"), although they produce roughly 40% of palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia.

This project brings together a strong team of researchers and practitioners from the UK (University of Cambridge and NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH)), Indonesia (IPB University (Bogor Agricultural University) and Sinar Mas Agro Research and Technology Research Institute (SMARTRI)) and Malaysia (Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) and Wild Asia), who have expertise in oil palm management, experience of working with smallholders, and a diverse range of viewpoints (researcher, industry and NGO). Using existing strong connections between project team members and the smallholder community, this project will run workshops with networks of smallholders in both Indonesia and Malaysia, to promote uptake of management recommendations from the previous project and solicit feedback from smallholders on the feasibility of using different understory management options within their farms. To assess whether findings from the original project also hold true in a smallholder context, we will measure biodiversity, ecosystem functioning (including GHG emissions) and yield across a range of smallholder plantations that currently use different understory management practices. We will then experimentally trial three different understory management options within smallholder farms that currently have low levels of understory vegetation. We will collect data on biodiversity, ecosystem functioning and yield within these areas as before and use results to identify management options that benefit both biodiversity, ecosystem processes and food production.

We will ensure outcomes from the project are disseminated clearly with opportunities for feedback, by running workshops and field visits with participating smallholders in both Indonesia and Malaysia. We will also work with sustainability schemes, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to make sure that results feed into sustainability guidelines, promoting the uptake of successful management options on a wider scale and over a longer timeframe than this project alone can achieve. By identifying management options that promote more environmentally friendly palm oil production, greater diversity of crops, as well as reduced herbicide applications, the results of this work have the potential to benefit the environment, as well as smallholder productivity, health, income and food security.

Planned Impact

This project has a wide range of beneficiaries. At the core of the project are smallholders in both Indonesia and Malaysia. By working with smallholders throughout the project, liaising with smallholders to receive feedback on understory vegetation management practices, and directly trialling the impacts of different practices on biodiversity, ecosystem processes, yield, profitability and food security, we will ensure that results are smallholder-relevant. Particular benefits to smallholders include: health benefits through reduced exposure to herbicides and access to a greater diversity of food, economic profitability through reduced outlay on herbicides, and food security through the promotion of a more diverse understory cropping system. Smallholders may also benefit from being part of a network established through this project, allowing access to expert guidance from both academic researchers and large-scale plantation researchers. The design of workshops with gender, ethnicity and religion in mind, will ensure that these benefits apply equally to the whole smallholder community.

Our diverse research team, budgeted attendance at relevant meetings, production of a stand at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), close liaison with industry sustainability schemes, and production of dissemination material geared towards applied outcomes of the work, will ensure that our findings have impact after the initial timeframe of the project and beyond the geographic range of the current work. With an estimated 18.7 million hectares of industrial oil palm and an additional 12.5 million hectares of smallholder plantations worldwide, this project therefore has the potential to influence management practices on over 30 million hectares of plantations. Based on an estimated one worker being employed per 8 hectares of oil palm, our findings could therefore benefit over 1.5 million smallholders. Potential benefits include health benefits, economic profitability, and food security, as detailed above, for both industrial and smallholder oil palm workers.

This project will also benefit communities living around and particularly downstream of oil palm areas worldwide. Application of herbicides and increased soil runoff as a result of limited understory vegetation in oil palm plantations can have negative impacts on water quality, potentially impacting water use and availability for downstream communities. Through promoting a less intensive management regime in oil palm, with greater retention of understory vegetation or planting of additional understory crops, this project could reduce erosion rates and therefore improve downstream water quality.

Finally, the organisations and individuals involved in this project will benefit through the development of an enhanced network of collaborators. Although combinations of all participating organisations have already worked together, this is the first time that all organisations in this proposal are working together on a single project, bringing benefits of diverse viewpoints for all organisations and fostering future collaborations. Tangible benefits include bespoke training of research assistants from both IPB University (Bogor Agricultural University) and Wild Asia, increasing their skill sets in biodiversity monitoring and ecological assessment. Our project team includes early-career, mid-career and established researchers, providing a chance to network across different levels of experience. For earlier career researchers it will also provide important opportunities to attend and present at meetings and to increase their research profile.


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