Tag Archives: landscape

Palm oil production: problems and future sustainability

By Joseph J. Bailey, University of Nottingham, UK

Palm oil, which is a type of vegetable oil that comes from the oil palm tree Elaeis guineensis, is big business! I challenge you to look in your home and fail to find a foodstuff, cleaning product, or toiletry product that contains it (see this guide to products containing palm oil). It has attracted much attention from environmental campaigners for several years, with a particularly high-profile set of protests against Unilever back in 2008, and there has been much publicity about its negative environmental impacts for some time (e.g. a report from the Independent in 2009). The story continues to reoccur in the popular press, with The Guardian recently reporting on a Greenpeace report (published March 3rd 2016) that claims 13 big brands (out of 14) cannot guarantee that the palm oil in their products is not contributing towards deforestation. The companies reviewed were: Colgate-Palmolive, Danone, Ferrero, General Mills, Ikea, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez, Nestle, Orkla, PepsiCo, P & G and Unilever. Ferrero was the exception as it ‘purchases palm oil volumes that are both fully traceable to plantation level and fully RSPO Segregated’.

Palm oil has penetrated global markets (including food, toiletries, cleaning products, and biofuel) because it is efficient (in terms of the amount of land required), versatile, and relatively cheap compared to other vegetable oils. It has been described as a ‘golden crop’, lifting many poor farmers from poverty, but it continues to cause major environmental problems, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which are two of the main producers (BBC, 2015). Deforestation creates space for the palm oil plantations and this directly threatens ‘charismatic’ species (e.g. orangutans, rhinos, tigers, elephants), their associated ecosystems, and the many less charismatic species therein (WWF).

There are currently a number of organisations and initiatives that are trying to increase the sustainability of palm oil production, to ensure that this product is profitable now, and in the future, without devastating the natural environment. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which came into operation in 2004, aims to put the global palm oil supply chain on a sustainable path. Currently, 21% of palm oil is RSPO certified globally. The Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG), meanwhile, aims to support the RSPO by implementing existing standards and building upon these through ‘creative innovations’ and local, corporate (e.g. Danone, Ferrero), and NGO (e.g. WWF, Greenpeace, Orangutan Land Trust) partnerships. POIG recently released an updated set of criteria (published March 2016). Therefore, whilst there is clearly still some distance to go beyond this figure of 21%, progress is very much being made. Consumer awareness is also vital towards these efforts.

District Kunak, Sabah: A oilpalm plantation along the Malaysia Federal Route 13 with different stadiums of oil palm growing.

District Kunak, Sabah: A oilpalm plantation along the Malaysia Federal Route 13 with different stadiums of oil palm growing. © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0. Available at: (accessed 14th Mar 2016).

Palm oil production often occurs at a local scale. A recent article in The Geographical Journal reported on the diversity of small-scale oil palm cultivation in the Malaysian part of Borneo (Soda et al., 2015). The article provides a case study of SJ Village in the Bintulu District in Sarawak and considers land-use changes from 2004 to 2013 using land-use maps derived from high-resolution satellite data. The oil palm trees grown here are irregularly dispersed and not in large plantations, which is quite a contrast to the sources of much palm oil. The authors identify that this method of harvesting palm oil may seem inefficient and irrational compared to plantations, but show why it is in fact very sensible. This is because only 26.9% (14% cultivated by the local villagers and the rest by outsiders) of the land in this area in 2013 was found to be used for oil palm, which means that the area’s economy is relatively resilient to declines in palm oil prices. The rest of the land area consisted of: young secondary forest (38.3%), old secondary and primary forest (29.1%), and rubber (0.14%), while the remainder (5.63%) was not visible because of cloud cover. The villagers regard old secondary forest and lands with poor access as ‘backup space’ for planting rubber trees and rice if the price of palm oil were to fall.

However, the authors also discuss potential future land conflicts within this complex system of multiple actors, whereby villagers ‘may have no option but to plant oil palms to secure their land’ if plantations continue to expand in the area. This could impact the mosaicked spatial pattern that currently dominates this village landscape and potentially threaten forests (primary and secondary) and future livelihoods. Outsiders also have an increasing influence in the area, including farmers from other villages (they marry into the community) and urban Chinese who lease rural lands. This can take some control away from the local people and threaten the economic security and rural subsistence that they have developed over many years. Maintaining the diverse landscape of mosaicked oil palm trees and forest requires ‘balanced relationships’ among the diverse set of stakeholders.

The importance of local socio-economic resilience and sustainability cannot be overstressed: maintaining a spatially diverse landscape is regarded as superior to palm oil plantations by being ecologically, economically, and socially more sustainable. Hopefully such sustainability can be developed alongside conservation objectives by some of the organisations mentioned above, even where large companies and outsiders encroach on local villages. Additionally, landscape diversity should be encouraged in existing plantations, to the advantage of the local communities and wildlife.


60-world2 Batty, D. 2008 Unilever targeted in oran-utan protest The Guardian

60-world2 Greenpeace 2016 Cutting deforestation out of palm oil: company scorecard 

60-world2 Hickman, M. 2009 The guilty secrets of pail oil: are you unwittingly contributing to the devastation of the rain forests? Independent

60-world2 Lamb, K. 2016 Leading brands unsure if pal oil in products comes from rainforest land The Guardian 

books_icon Soda, R., Kato, Y. and Hon, J. 2015 The diversity of small-scale oil palm cultivation in Sarawak, Malaysia. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12152.

60-world2 WWF  Which everyday products contain palm oil? 

Climate Change Adapatation: Greening Urban Environments

by Fiona Ferbrache


Examples of green infrastructure from an exhibition entitled ‘La Ville Fertile’ (Gaillac, 2012)

What happened to your Christmas tree at the end of December?  Did you recycle wrapping paper and Christmas cards?  Perhaps you experienced some flooding from the severe weather during the festive season?  This post explores environmental and climate change adaptation strategies – namely green infrastructure – but first a light-hearted piece of research with a festive theme.

In December, academics from Leeds University calculated Santa’s carbon footprint if he successfully delivered stockings to 7.7 million UK homes.  Travelling roughly 1.5 million km, Santa’s carbon footprint would be equivalent to 9 tonnes per stocking (UK annual CO2 emissions are roughly 7 tonnes per person).  Exploring less costly ways of delivering Christmas gifts, the scientists calculated that stockings arriving from China by container ship, and then to one’s home by van, would result in lower CO2 emissions at 800 grams per stocking.Xmas sack0001

We are asked to take environmental and climate change seriously, not least because without adequate adaptation, lives and landscapes may be put at risk.  This point is made by Jones and Somper in an Early View article exploring how climate change adaptations in London are being integrated into the landscape.  Their focus is on green infrastructure: “natural or semi-natural networks of green (soil-covered or vegetated) and blue (water-covered) spaces and corridors that maintain and enhance ecosystem services” (p.1), and how such spaces can be encouraged and used more effectively (e.g. the Green Roofs Scheme).  Jones and Somper present some examples of existing measures towards green infrastructure in the capital, and also make three key recommendations for policymakers, highlighting, among them, the need for stronger planning initiatives to turn ideals into standard practice.

Next time you visit London, you might observe what measures have been taken towards furthering green infrastructure, and consider whether such strategies might be successful in your own hometown.

60-world2  Greening Roofs and Walls in LondonGreater London Authority

books_icon  Jones, S. & Somper, C. 2013 The role of green infrastructure in climate change adaptation in London. The Geographical Journal. DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12059

60-world2  Santa’s EmissionsUnited Bank of Carbon

60-world2  “Are We Whistling in the Wind?”, Turner, B. 2012 Geography Directions 19 October


Area Content Alert: 44, 2 (June 2012)

Cover image for Vol. 44 Issue 2The latest issue of Area (Volume 44, Issue 2, pages 134–268, June 2012) is available on Wiley Online Library.

Click past the break for a full list of articles in this issue.

Continue reading

Content Alert: New Articles (30th March 2012)

These Early View articles are now available on Wiley Online Library.

Adapting water management to climate change: Putting our science into practice

Ecological benefits of creating messy rivers
Nicholas C Everall, Andrew Farmer, Andrew F Heath, Timothy E Jacklin and Robert L Wilby
Article first published online: 16 MAR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2012.01087.x

Original Articles

Anticipatory objects and uncertain imminence: cattle grids, landscape and the presencing of climate change on the Lizard Peninsula, UK
Catherine Leyshon (née Brace) and Hilary Geoghegan
Article first published online: 16 MAR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4762.2012.01082.x


Researching the riots
Richard Phillips, Diane Frost and Alex Singleton
Article first published online: 21 MAR 2012 | DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2012.00463.x

Landscape and memorial

7_July_Memorial_-_Hyde_ParkBy Matthew Rech

In July this year, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall unveiled a memorial to the victims of the London bombings of July, 2005. The 52 stainless steel pillars, which are inscribed with the date, time and location of the bombings they represent, now stand permanently in London’s Hyde Park.

Memorial has oft provided Geographers with ways to explore the relationship between self and landscape, subject and world. However, writing in Transactions, John Wylie re-frames the literature on the cultural politics of place, memory and commemoration, and thus goes beyond interpretations which are predicated on the materiality of memory.

Memorial might be thought of, suggests Wylie, not as “embodied engagements with and by the world” (282), but rather as specific instances of absence, distance, loss and haunting. Here, where absence is “constitutive of the entire experience”, memorials become instances where there can be little connection between “visible and the invisible, seer and seen” (287).

60-world Read John Wylie (2009) Landscape, absence and the geographies of love. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

60-world Read BBC report on the unvieling of the 7/7 memorial