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Smithsonian scientist warns that palm oil development may threaten Amazon
Date:3/24/2009

Oil palm cultivation is a significant driver of tropical forest destruction across Southeast Asia. It could easily become a threat to the Amazon rainforest because of a proposed change in Brazil's legislation, new infrastructure and the influence of foreign agro-industrial firms in the region, according to William F. Laurance, senior scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

Laurance and Rhett A. Butler, founder of environmental science Web site Mongabay.com, warn in the open-access journal Tropical Conservation Science, that oil palm expansion in the Brazilian Amazon is likely to occur at the expense of natural forest as a result of a proposed revision to the forest code that requires landowners to retain 80 percent forest on lands in the Amazon. The new law would allow up to 30 percent of this reserve to consist of oil palm.

Expansion may be driven by economics. As the world's highest-yielding oil-containing seed source, oil palm is likely to offer better financial returns and to employ larger numbers of people than cattle ranching and mechanized soy farming, the dominant agricultural activities in Brazilian Amazon. Furthermore, oil palm producers will benefit from a "logging subsidy," whereby timber harvested from a tract of land helps to offset the cost of establishing a plantation. Before the recent run-up in palm oil prices, logging had been a factor in the profitability of oil palm plantations in Southeast Asia.

"Oil palm expansion could be accelerated by, as well as contribute to, the drivers promoting forest loss by buoying the price of land, encouraging infrastructure expansion and offering a new form of land use in the region," said Laurance. "Oil palm plantations are effectively biological deserts relative to even logged forests; research in Asia suggests an 80 percent drop-off among major animal groups."

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Contact: Beth King
kingb@si.edu
703-487-3770 x8216
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Source:Eurekalert  

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