Greasy Palms: Assessing the Resilience and Vulnerability of Bornean Landscapes to Agribusiness Expansion for Edible Oils and Biofuels


Lisa Curran - Tropical Resources Institute, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies  


Abstract: A major challenge of sustainability science involves assessing the resilience of human-environmental systems that are experiencing multiple natural and anthropogenic perturbations that vary in rate, extent and intensity.  Moreover, these ecosystems display non-linear dynamics with both positive and negative feedbacks and potential thresholds of ecosystem function at local, regional and even global scales.  Here I present a case study from tropical forests in Indonesian Borneo that documents a major perturbation to human-environmental systems in this region large scale and intensive land clearing for agribusiness (e.g., oil palm plantations).  First, I evaluate the macro- and microeconomic and political drivers of oil palm expansion with global demand for timber, edible oils and biofuel. Then I assess the effects of these land use changes on carbon emissions, biodiversity and forest dependent livelihoods in both a local district and across the island of Borneo. Then I explore the institutional incentives and disincentives for a diversity of agents involved or affected by such practices: firms and conglomerates, district officials and national agencies and rural resident villagers and peri-urban landless poor. Governmental policies have not incorporated the opportunity costs of plantation expansion on land use, ecosystem goods and services or the vulnerability of rural poor to global market dynamics. Civil society requires this diverse information with potential scenarios to participate effectively in realistic assessments of such land use decisions.  Issues of land tenure, social and environmental justice, accountability and transparency of governance are critical to evaluate private sector behavior and long-term regional sustainability of this agribusiness sector.