Biodiversity and High Conservation Values Working Group (BHCV WG)

RSPO & Biodiversity Conservation

The RSPO and its various stakeholders have from the early days since inception of the organisation, recognized the complexity of biodiversity issues in relation to the plantation landscape and the urgent need to address biodiversity conservation in this setting.

The rapid expansion of Palm Oil plantations makes sense from an economic point of view, especially for developing countries that look to advance their country, feed and improve the living standards of their population and stake their claim on the global economy platform. However, relentless degradation and destruction of forested lands and the often devastating environmental consequences that become increasingly palpable throughout the world, have led to criticism from various sectors, including various agencies from within the producing countries.

Globally 13.5 mill. ha of palm oil is grown throughout high humidity, low elevation tropical areas, primarily in South East Asia (Malaysia & Indonesia) and South America (Brazil, Colombia) (Fitzherbert et al., 2008). Deforestation rates in South East Asia are twice as high (0.8-0.9%) than similar data for America or Africa (0.4-0.5%); however, other emerging palm oil producing markets are believed to see an acceleration of demand for forest conversion to feed the expansion of palm oil plantation in the near future. The Amazon basin, the largest global continuous rainforest system, is seen under acute imminent threat due to such expansion plans with >2,000,000 km2 considered suitable for oil palm cultivation (Butler & Laurance, 2009). Globally it is public support, government policies and aggressive industrial participation that drive this potential scenario.

From an economic viewpoint palm oil expansion makes a lot of sense, but at a serious expense to ecosystem services and biodiversity. Recent data agree in suggesting palm oil plantations as poor substitutes for native tropical rainforest ecosystems (Danielsen et al., 2008). Palm oil plantations consistently report the lowest biodiversity values, both overall and for most individual groups of organisms, in comparison to both primary systems (only 15% of all taxa were present in oil palm landscapes) and other plantation landscapes (Fitzherbet et al., 2008). Species composition also centred on generalist, pioneer, non-forest and pest species, while "no-shows" in palm oil landscapes were 'specialist' species, restricted range and HCV species (Fitzherbert et al., 2008; Scales & Marsden, 2008). Isolated fragments of forest within a plantation record less then 50% of the species richness of undisturbed, continuous forest (Fitzherbet et al., 2008). Apart from compromised biodiversity counts structural complexity is less complex, tree composition and age is uniform and the canopy is single-layered and low with reduced undergrowth (Fitzherbet et al., 2008).

Expansion of palm oil plantations also contributes to increasing fragmentation of remaining natural forest, and reduction in size and spatial distance increase between individual forest pockets. Animal movement, in the absence of suitable corridors or 'stepping stones' between fragments, is impeded.

Statistics of this nature are hard to ignore and naturally cause discontent and concern among stakeholders. The adverse impact of palm oil cultivation on the environment, locally and globally, served as one of main drivers behind the formation of the RSPO per se.
The initial set of P&C, though drawn up with the best intention of protecting biodiversity in and around the plantation, has proven to be insufficient to safeguard biodiversity-related sustainability. Records show either a genuine lack of understanding of the definition of biodiversity, and in particular its application in the plantation landscape, or disinterest, lack of commitment or even attempts to mislead with irrelevant reporting. HCV concepts likewise are largely misunderstood or misinterpreted.

This and the complexity of biodiversity-related issues require a multi-stakeholder participation review of the current P&C to equally enable and ensure compliance to sustainability principles. For this purpose the RSPO secretariat has engaged a Biodiversity Coordinator (BC) and initiated the Biodiversity Technical Committee (BTC)

The Biodiversity Technical Committee

Conceptualisation and initiation of the BTC is a collective reaction across the board of stakeholders to the above status quo and the need for clearer definition and tighter delineation of biodiversity-related P&C. The BTC, and a Biodiversity Coordinator located at the RSPO Secretariat in Kuala Lumpur, are co-financed by a BACP grant for the duration of two years (2009/10).

The principal purpose of the BTC is a review of the current P&C and, if necessary, to develop an amended set of generic P&C, primarily under Principles 5 and 7, that adequately address biodiversity conservation in and around the plantation landscape, and in principle applicable at global level, with relevant National Interpretations to be discussed by working groups in individual countries .

The committee is further expected to advise the RSPO on 'on-the-ground' methodologies that allow reasonable compliance with this new set of guidelines, not only for the sake of achieving certification, but also beyond in becoming an integral aspect of estate management.

The committee also functions as a working group that addresses specific areas in the P&C related to biodiversity and its conservation found to be insufficiently addressed or implemented. One such area is the management of set-asides in estates. The BTC will aim to design a framework of guidelines and recommendations for inclusion into the P&C that will increase the quality and quantity of areas in the estate that are not under commercial cultivation with view to improve the overall biodiversity in estates and the function of estates in providing connectivity between existing areas of natural forest.

Further to this the committee will monitor and liaise with the various working groups in RSPO that address biodiversity related topics.

In achieving this objective the BTC will have limited peer-reviewed literature to fall back onto, both in the field of biodiversity conservation sensu lato and in plantation landscapes sensu stricto; since 1970 only 1% of all research on the palm oil field has addressed biodiversity and conservation issues (Turner et al., 2008). 'Conservation' studies also have consistently under-performed in advising policymakers, agriculturists, urban planners etc. on the 'how to' of conservation. Instead a big majority of studies focus on descriptive biology, auto- and syn-ecological studies, threat assessments, cause & effect studies or combinations of these (Meijaard & Sheil, 2007).

The work of the BTC over the next two years is to find solutions, provide options, strategies and workable application methodologies to address biodiversity-related issues in the context of RSPO P&C and beyond. The BTC work will be augmented by data and results from several research projects that are either wholly RSPO funded or endorsed and co-funded by BACP (Biodiversity and Agricultural Commodities Program), and the outcomes of several Working Groups (WGs) that were formed to address specific problems related to biodiversity conservation, e.g. the New Plantings WG and Greenhouse Gases WG.


At its inaugural meeting on 15th April 2009, the committee decided on a set of priority areas that need urgent addressing in tightening compliance with RSPO P&C and implementation of sustainability practices. Among these are HCV-related matters, with special emphasis on Indonesia, compensation schemes, (riparian) corridors & set-asides, biodiversity assessment methodologies, green corridors/landscape issues and small holder related issues. Topics related to these will form the focal points during meetings of the committee over the next two years. Minutes of the meeting are attached.


1. Meeting
Wednesday, 15th April, 2009
Hotel Istana, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

At its inaugural meeting the committee decided on a set of priority areas that need urgent addressing in tightening compliance with RSPO P&C and implementation of sustainability practices. Among these are HCV-related matters, with special emphasis on Indonesia, compensation schemes, (riparian) corridors & set-asides, biodiversity assessment methodologies, green corridors/landscape issues and small holder related issues. Topics related to these will form the focal points during meetings of the committee over the next two years. Minutes of the meeting are attached.

2. Meeting
13th June, 2009
Hotel Le Meridien, Jakarta, Indonesia

Discussions focused on HCV issues, compensation schemes and set-asides. The BC informed the committee that pertinent HCV issues were being addressed at secretariat level. The meeting further decided on the necessity for producing a background paper on available methodology, gaps and opportunities to prepare the way for a discussion on guidelines and recommendations to amend set-aside management within the RSPO certification system context. Consensus was reached on working towards a compensation scheme to address a variety of biodiversity-related issues affecting plantation landscapes. The BC will prepare a background paper on options, risks and general aspects of compensation schemes to advise and update the committee before taking this matter forward.

Research programs addressing biodiversity-related issues either funded by the RSPO or endorsed and co-funded by BACP
"Integrated Weed Management"
(RSPO funded -> CABI)
Duration of project: one year (2009)

A draft version of the survey questionnaire for the project (Activity 1a in project plan) was distributed to growers in late April-early May in order to "road test" the questionnaire and to obtain feedback. Based on this feedback (from Malaysia, Indonesia and PNG), parts of the questionnaire have been redrafted to make it more concise and easier to complete, prior to translation into Spanish and Bahasa Indonesia (for Colombia and Indonesia). Based on lists being compiled of growers in the four participating countries, including RSPO members, the final versions will be distributed for completion over the coming weeks to allow time for completion, return and analysis of data. The literature reviews (Activity 1b and 1c) are ongoing. A considerable amount of information and synthesis of this information into the actual reviews has now started.

"Oil Palm Cultivation on Fallow Land, Aceh, Indonesia"
(RSPO endorsed - BACP co-funded -> PanEco/YEL)
Duration of project: 2 years (2009 - 2011)
Approved February 2009
Project has started.

"Increasing the Effectiveness of Biodiversity-related RSPO P & C"
(RSPO endorsed - BACP co-funded -> ZSL)
Duration of project: 2 years (2009 - 2010)
Approved February 2009
Project approval pending.

"Supporting Sustainable Palm Oil Production through Private-public Partnerships for Landscape-based HCV Assessment"
(RSPO endorsed - BACP co-funded -> FFI)
Duration of project: 2 years (2009 - 2011)
Approved June 2009
Project has started.

All projects will contribute data and results that will benefit RSPO biodiversity-related work.

Glossary of Acronyms

BACP Biodiversity and Agricultural Commodities Program
BBOP Business and Biodiversity Offsets Program
BC Biodiversity Coordinator
BMP Best Management Practice
BTC Biodiversity Technical Committee
CABI Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (UK)
CSPO Certified Sustainable Palm Oil
EB RSPO Executive Board
FFI Flora & Fauna International (NGO)
GHG-WG Greenhouse Gases Working Group
HCV High Conservation Value
HCV-RIWG HCV- Regional Indonesian Working Group
HCV-RN HCV Resource Network
IFC International Funding Corporation
INA Indonesia
IWM Integrated Weed Management
MPOC Malaysian Palm Oil Council
NI-WG National Interpretation Working Group
NP-WG New Plantings Working Group
PanEco PanEco Foundation (NGO)
P&C Principles and Criteria
RILO RSPO Indonesian Liaison Office
ToR Terms of Reference
WG Working Group
WI Wetlands International (NGO)
ZSL Zoological Society of London (NGO)

Bhagwat SA. & Willis KJ. (2009). Conservation in oil-palm landscapes. Conservation Biology 23(2): 245-246

Butler RA. & Laurance WF. (2009). Is palm oil the next emerging threat to the Amazon? Tropical Conservation Science 2(1):1-10

Danielsen F., Beukema H., Burgess ND., Parish F., Brühl CA., Donald PF., Murdiyarso D., Phalan B., Reijnders L., Struebig M. & Fitzherbert EB. (2008). Biofuel plantations on forested lands: double jeopardy for biodiversity and climate. Conservation Biology 23(2): 348-358

Fitzherbet EB., Struebig MJ., Morel A., Danielsen F., Brühl CA., Donald PF. & Phalan B. (2008). How will oil palm expansion affect biodiversity? Trends in Ecology and Evolution 23(10): 538-545

Laurance WF. (2007). Forest destruction in tropical Asia. Current Science 93(11): 1544-1550

Lee TM. & Jetz W. (2008). Future battlegrounds for conservation under global change. Proceedings of the Royal Society - Biological Sciences 275: 1261-1270

Meijaard E. & Sheil D. (2007). Is wildlife research useful for wildlife conservation in the tropics? A review for Borneo with global implications. Biodiversity Conservation 16: 3053-3065

Palmer M., Bernhardt E., Chornesky E., Collins S., Dobson A., Duke C., Gold B., Jacobson R., Kingsland S., Kranz R., Mappin M., Martinez ML., Micheli F., Morse J., Pace M., Pascual M., Palumbi S., Reichman OJ., Simons A., Townsend A. & Turner M. (2004). Ecology for a crowded planet. Science 304: 1251-1252

Phalan B., Fitzherbet EB., Rafflegeau S., Struebig MJ. & Verwilghen A. (2009). Conservation in oil-palm landscapes. Conservation Biology 23(2): 244-245

Scales BR. & Marsden SJ. (2008). Biodiversity in small-scale tropical agroforests: a review od species richness and abundance shifts and the factors influencing them. Environmental Conservation 35(2): 160-172