Converting rainforest to oil palm plantation

What are the environmental consequences?

Researchers from CRIB are currently working as part of the Southeast Asia Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP) to investigate the environmental impacts of oil palm expansion. The aim is to improve the understanding of rainforest conversion to oil palm and to develop new strategies to improve the sustainability of the industry.

Dr Farnon Ellwood, Julian Donald and Josie Phillips are CRIB researchers working as part of SEARRP in partnership with Wilmar International Limited (Wilmar) to advance the knowledge and application of sustainable oil palm plantation practices across Malaysia, Indonesia and the wider tropics. SEARRP works closely with a number of leading international universities and local partners to facilitate the research of individual scientists and manage a suite of large-scale field experiments such as the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystem (SAFE) Project and the Socially and Environmentally Sustainable Oil palm Research (SEnSOR) programme.

Dr Farnon Ellwood's team are working to understand how the evolutionary relationships of tropical arthropods affect their ecological interactions, between each other, and with the environment. Much of Dr Ellwood's work focuses on the inhabitants of bird's nest ferns (the tropical epiphyte, Asplenium nidus). Based on this previous work, PhD students Julian Donald and Josie Phillips are continuing to develop the bird's nest fern into a general ecosystem model to answer complex ecological questions, such as the impact of habitat disturbance on decomposition and nutrient cycling. The bird's nest fern system provides an opportunity to study ecological interactions over several trophic levels, from invertebrates such as insects and other arthropods, to microbes such as bacteria and fungi. These interactions take place within the fern, which is itself designed by natural selection, and subject to environmental disturbances such as the conversion of rainforest to oil palm plantations. Understanding the precise interactions between the inhabitants of bird's nest ferns will ultimately allow these ubiquitous plants to be used as conservation tools in the degraded oil palm landscape.

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