Addressing environmental impacts of oil palm expansion in Liberia/Africa

Lead Research Organisation: UK CENTRE FOR ECOLOGY & HYDROLOGY
Department Name: Atmospheric Chemistry and Effects


Oil palm is one of the most valuable crops in the humid tropics, dominating the global vegetable fat market and providing biofuel. Oil palm cultivation is essential to global food security and provides jobs and income to millions of farmers, but large-scale conversion of rainforest to oil palm monoculture has also caused substantial environmental degradation and altered the emissions of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) nitrous oxide, methane and carbon dioxide, which in turn affects the global climate. Identifying the environmental consequences of oil palm establishment and management, and testing strategies to mitigate any impacts, is essential to maintaining oil palm's food security and livelihoods benefits while reducing the environmental footprints of production.

Oil palm is principally grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, where it is an introduced species and commonly cultivated in large-scale industrial plantations. However, oil palm is also grown elsewhere in the tropics, often covering hundreds of thousands of hectares of land. It is likely that the environmental impacts of oil palm production differ across growth regions, yet few data are available in many producing regions. Owing to rising labour costs, reduced land availability, and increasing environmental legislation in Southeast Asia, large-scale oil palm corporations are increasingly looking for alternative growth locations. Research is urgently needed to identify the environmental impacts of oil palm establishment and management in non-Southeast Asia producing regions.

West Africa, oil palm's native home, has been identified as a future hotspot for oil palm production. Expanded cultivation is driven by both local people, who practice traditional methods of harvesting wild-growing oil palms from areas of lowland rainforest, and large-scale industrial corporations. The cultivated area is predicted to increase owing to population growth and increases in per capita GDP in the region, and heightened demand for palm oil globally. For instance, in Liberia, the most densely-forested country in West Africa, oil palm expansion has increased substantially over the last twenty years, yet only one project, a recent large-scale field study between the University of Cambridge (UoC) and Golden Veroleum Liberia ('GVL', the largest oil palm producer nationwide), is investigating the environmental impacts of increased cultivation. While the project is collecting a wide range of biological data, GHG emissions have yet to be measured.

The proposed project will establish a new, long-term research partnership between the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH), University of Liberia (UoL), and GVL to quantify the impacts of oil palm cultivation on GHG emissions in Liberia including plantations and rainforest ecosystems. Capitalising on the established field study led by UoC and GVL, we will use static chambers to measure and compare GHG fluxes across three land-use systems in Southeast Liberia. These include rainforest, smallholder farms with wild-growing oil palms, and industrial oil palm plantations. We will couple our GHG flux data with measurements of soil physical and chemical properties, crop yields, and existing biodiversity and ecosystem function data collected previously by project partner UoC, to provide a holistic understanding of how land-use change affects ecological conditions and crop production in Liberia. Working with a network of collaborators based across West Africa, we will host a workshop to disseminate results from previous sustainable oil palm research in Southeast Asia, including lessons learnt. Informed by conversations held during our workshop, we will publish an agenda for future directions for land management research across tropical Africa, and West Africa specifically. Outcomes will facilitate future collaborative research initiatives.


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