Palm oil BMP: Land-use planning | WWF

Palm oil BMP: Land-use planning

Most damage from oil palm plantations results from where they are located. If expansion can be limited to appropriate sites, many of the problems common to the industry could be eliminated.

Planning – and enforcement

More effective zoning and land-use planning will be the cornerstone of successful strategies to reduce environmental damage from oil palm cultivation.

Plans should include protecting areas of high biodiversity, areas that are critical habitat for endangered species, and areas that are important for the maintenance of ecosystem functions (particularly along rivers and on steep slopes) from conversion to oil palm plantations.

Forest restoration within plantations could also be considered in subsequent replanting cycles, depending on prior poor productivity, declining prices, or soil erosion.

However, setting aside reserves is not sufficient, especially since palm oil production is already encroaching into some supposedly protected areas. Better enforcement on the ground is therefore also necessary.


Ecological and species priority areas

Any conservation strategy to address the expansion of oil palm plantations will require an initial mapping of existing plantations showing ecological and species priority areas as overlays, as well as concessions that have already been granted but not yet developed.

This information is essential for any type of land-use planning and zoning; it is also a useful starting point for engaging the industry as well as government officials. At the conclusion of this exercise, it would be possible to identify the most important areas that should be protected either due to their importance as biodiversity preserves or as corridors for the movement of key species.

This would force those interested in conservation to identify areas that are not key for protection and that could be used for oil palm or other appropriate development.


Zoning is, of course, not only an exercise to be done at the larger landscape or ecosystem level. It can also be usefully undertaken on a single plantation. In this case, it is important to identify minimal-size, viable forest fragments of biological significance within oil palm concessions.

This information should then be reviewed with owners and managers to identify the most appropriate options for developing forest corridors within their plantations or connecting them to other intact forest areas in order to mitigate the development impacts of oil palm plantations.  

Re-introducing priority species

Enlightened palm oil producers might even be convinced to allow Sumatran rhinoceroses to be introduced to unplanted areas of a plantation, with appropriate measures to prevent worker injuries and poaching. Stray rhinoceroses that have wandered out of protected areas could be used to stock such areas. Prior to this, however, basic research would be needed on local vegetation characteristics and food availability.

If successful, rhinoceroses bred on such plantations could be used to restock reserves or other areas. Without advocating captive breeding, the vastness of palm oil plantations plus the intermittent availability of "stray" rhinoceroses and the clear failure of other projects already holding rhinoceros in captivity make such an experiment worth considering. If undertaken appropriately, this could generate another stream of income for oil palm plantations.

Owner-led initiatives

Not all zoning needs to be done by government. Estate owners or even associations of small holders can zone their own lands to reduce their impacts and improve their profitability. A few oil palm producers are beginning to understand that fighting rivers and steep slopes actually lowers their overall production because they spend most of their time focusing on the least productive areas instead of the most fertile ones.

The traditional strategy, in effect, was to bring the production levels of the problem areas up to the average. The new strategy is quite different. By leaving (or zoning) such areas (e.g., riparian areas or steep slopes) for wildlife corridors and watershed and stream protection, producers actually increase their net profits because they focus their attention not on the problems but on raising the average production on most of their plantings. But this shift in thinking, and the record keeping that would support it, has not happened on most farms.

Source: Adapted from "World Agriculture & Environment" Clay (2004)

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