Keeping the Wild, The Star, January 15th 2013

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A new manual guides plantation managers on making estates friendly to wildlife

THE basin of the Kinabatangan river, the longest river in Sabah and rich in biodiversity, has been transformed by logging and agricultural activities in the last 60 or so years.

In 2002, the Corridor of Life project was initiated by the World Wide Fund for Nature Malaysia and the conservation group has since been working with Sabah Wildlife Department, local communities and oil palm companies to rehabilitate and re-establish forests along the riverbank. The effort has shown some positive results.

“We’ve looked at some oil palm plantations that are close to the Kinabatangan river, and it’s quite exciting,” said Dr Reza Azmi, founder and executive director of Wild Asia, a group which works with businesses to improve their environmental practices. “You have some amazing birds popping in, there are orangutans visiting on a regular basis, and elephants dropping by.”

The Corridor of Life project is one of the case studies cited in Biodiversity In Plantation Landscapes, a manual published by Wild Asia and the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC). Wild Asia wanted a way to get managers with very little environmental and biodiversity knowledge to become more aware. So the manual was created as a kind of one-stop shop. It provides a primer on biodiversity and offers ways in which plantation managers can protect and enhance biodiversity in estates.

Handy guide

For an existing plantation, sedimentation would be the big environmental issue

The manual does this by identifying landscape-level impacts, such as loss of natural habitats, and provides suggestions on how to manage such impacts. It also gives solutions for the use of fertilisers (which run the risk of runoffs contaminating aquatic environments) and pesticides (risk of poisoning wildlife), waste management and soil erosion, and managing water resources.

“For an existing plantation, sedimentation would be the big environmental issue,” said Reza. “You get this from replanting areas, or roads may have runoffs of sediment. And when you channel all this into your streams, it silts up the streams. The biodiversity of the streams are reduced.”

As they are planted with a single crop, plantations have been criticised for upsetting nature’s ecological balance. Reza said sometimes not everything in an area is cultivated, and that could be a good thing.

“Sometimes they leave pockets of forests here and there,” he said. “What we realise is that if those areas are left semi-natural, that’s also a way of attracting biodiversity within your plantation. We’ve also seen that just simply having ponds will make it attractive for migratory birds or other animals that might want to use them. We’ve seen some very rare birds in some oil palm plantations.”

Wild Asia, which started out as a simple online information-sharing hub in 1998, has been doing biodiversity assessments in and out of plantations since 2005.

“This really gives us a perspective of what the opportunities are, in terms of biodiversity conservation,” said Reza. “But also, the important thing was the time spent with the managers and staff on the ground, looking at and understanding the issues that are impacting biodiversity.”

The partnership with the oil palm industry gave Wild Asia the platform and access to the industry, and resources to do workshops with plantation managers. Prior to coming up with the manual, the organisation carried out a series of three workshops.

“The idea was get a chance to enlighten the managers on biodiversity issues,” Reza explained. “It was also to get feedback and problem-solve, and give them useful exercises. So all that became the precursor to the manual.”

Apart from the Kinabatangan example, the manual provides other success stories of biodiversity management. The River of Life Project in the Tanah Merah Estate in Negri Sembilan, for instance, involved rehabilitating a river that connected a forested hill to a mangrove reserve, and tree-planting as part of a forest enrichment exercise. The project ended in 2008, and the trees planted remained healthy.

Another is the Riparian Management Project in Sabah, undertaken in the Sabahmas Plantation outside of Lahad Datu. A biodiversity assessment found a large population of proboscis monkeys at the Segama river and a highly viable but degraded riparian area. The project was then undertaken by PPB Oil Palms and Sabah Forestry Department to enlarge and enrich the riparian area. After tree-plantings were carried out, there was an increase in sightings of wildlife in the area.

The manual is part of the Biodiversity for Busy Managers project, an initiative by Wild Asia and supported by the MPOC, to inspire and educate plantation managers to start incorporating biodiversity principles into their plantation management in order to protect their natural areas from depletion.

Wild Asia also conducted workshops for plantation workers to give them a clearer understanding of the concept of biodiversity, especially in relation to the issues connected to the oil palm industry, such as the development of riparian reserves and natural corridors in plantations. A series of Insight Guides are also being created, focusing on aspects of biodiversity which are of interest and importance to managers. The idea is to inform them about key biodiversity issues that apply to oil palm plantation development, and provide practical know-how to mitigate negative impacts on biodiversity in plantations.

The first guide, Migratory Birds In Plantations, comprises a four-page brochure and two posters which give an overview on bird migration, what birds to look out for at different times of the year, the benefits of birds in plantations, and ways in which planters can encourage the breeding and hosting of migratory birds.

A two-month study of avian diversity conducted in a plantation in Bintulu, Sarawak, in 2010 showed a positive correlation between the number of birds and proximity to secondary forest. The study also suggested that the presence of buffer zones in the plantation (in the form of riparian reserves, unplanted areas, road reserves or other areas where natural habitats can exist) benefits birds, as they constitute foraging and breeding habitats for birds.

Understand the problems

How effective would the solutions offered in the manual be in ensuring or regaining biodiversity in plantations? Reza pointed out that there is no hard and fast answer, but offered the Kinabatangan plantations as a good example of what can be done.

“You got the continuum of your starting point, and you also have a continuum of what your landscape and your neighbouring landscape actually look like,” he said. “Say, if my plantation is in Damansara (in Selangor), I’m surrounded by housing development, factories, so the overall state of my natural environment is pretty low. If you were to implement some of these ideas (in the manual), what you’re actually doing is creating little natural refuges for biodiversity, and you may be encouraging natural biodiversity. You’re also reducing your environmental foorprint. But should you expect to see tigers popping up? Or hornbills? No, because your palette, your neighbourhood, is pretty developed.”

He said the idea is to understand the problems occurring, and to plan for a different form of development for the future, while modifying practices at the same time.

“I wouldn’t say that this (manual) is going to stop the problems. But if you’re armed with this knowledge and you think about where you want to open a plantation next, and it stops you from doing it in a highly biodiverse area, then I think this book has done its job.”

Keeping the Wild was written by Allan Koay, The Star, January 15th, 2013.