Professor Keith Hamer

Darwin initiative

Promoting biodiversity in sustainable oil-palm landscapes for West African smallholders

Funded by DEFRA Darwin Initiative; 1st April 2016 – 31st March 2019


oil palm crown

By promoting best agricultural practice that boosts yields, minimises environmental damage and supports RSPO-certification, this project will increase incomes and welfare of Ghanaian oil-palm smallholders, provide multiple co-benefits for biodiversity of birds and insects in oil-palm and adjacent rainforest, and ensure robust land-use planning leading to protection of high-conservation-value rainforest.

Project partners

Project Lead: University of Leeds, UK (Prof Keith Hamer; Dr Guy Ziv)

Partner 1: Nature Conservation Research Centre, Ghana (Dr Rebecca Asare)

Partner 2: University of York, UK (Prof Jane Hill; Dr Jennifer Lucey)

Partner 3: Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana (Dr Winston Asante)

Partner 4: Solidaridad West Africa (Ms Rosemary Addico)

Partner 5: Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (Dr Soo Chin Oi)

Problem to be addressed

oil palm fruit

Palm oil is a globally important edible oil that governments in western Africa are increasingly targeting as a key sector for agricultural growth and to address rural poverty. Most oil-palm growers in the region are smallholder farmers who rely on cultivation for both income and household consumption. For instance in Ghana, ~90% of the land cultivated for oil-palm (~400,000ha) comprises smallholdings. Ghana also supports >550 species of rainforest birds, of which about 20 are globally threatened according to the IUCN, and >900 species of butterflies, of which about 100 are endemic to western Africa and threatened by forest loss. Ghana plans to expand smallholdings by a further 150,000ha over the next 5-10 years, making it vital to provide smallholders with tools and guidance to help them develop sustainable agricultural practices that optimise economic returns, reduce biodiversity losses and environmental threats, and ensure the protection of high conservation value rainforest; hence the need for this project.

Growing markets in sustainably-sourced palm oil provide ideal opportunities for smallholders in Ghana to boost their incomes through take-up of best agricultural practice (BAP) to increase yields, reduce economic and environmental costs of reliance on fertilizers and pesticides, and increase crop value through RSPO-certification as sustainable growers. Certification also ensures a commitment by smallholders to the continued protection of rainforest that supports high conservation values (HCVs). However, smallholder uptake of both BAP and RSPO-certification is very low, largely through uncertainties over the yield benefits attainable from BAP, poor knowledge of how to apply BAP, and a lack of scientifically-robust and cost-effective means for smallholders to identify and prioritise HCV-forest for sustained protection, as required for certification. By addressing these issues, this project will promote sustainable oil-palm cultivation that boosts smallholders’ incomes and ensures the long-term protection of rainforest supporting high biodiversity.

Project outcomes

oil palm fruit bagged

This project will:

  1. Improve the scientific understanding and take-up of Best Agricultural Practice for oil-palm smallholders, boosting crop yields and hence increasing household incomes while increasing biodiversity within smallholdings and adjacent forest, and promoting robust land-use planning that ensures the protection of high-conservation-value (HCV) forest throughout the planned expansion of oil-palm cultivation by smallholders;
  2. Directly train smallholders in rural Ghana in BAP methods, particularly benefiting women who traditionally carry out much of the work of cultivation including application of agrochemicals and harvesting of fruit. Adoption of BAP also provides additional potential benefits through RSPO certification, which we will promote through knowledge-exchange activities and networks, including through the RSPO;
  3. Train two Darwin Research Fellows (DRFs) to Master of Research (MRes) degree level in experimental design and analytical methods, quantitative census methods, avian and insect identification and taxonomy, spatial modelling techniques and GIS. DRFs will continue to work for our project partners beyond the end of the project, ensuring that their skills and knowledge are retained and used to train others in the long term;
  4. Test Ghana’s RSPO National Interpretation Guidance for smallholder certification and recommend a robust, efficient and cost-effective means for smallholders to identify and prioritise HCV forest for sustained protection, hence making RSPO criteria better suited to the needs of smallholders and facilitating the wider uptake of certification.
  5. Ghana’s 4th CBD Report recognises that increased cultivation of cash crops is threatening ecosystems. By making palm oil production more efficient and sustainable, this project will create a “win-win” for poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation, supporting the country under its CBD commitments (e.g. Aichi targets 1, 4, 7, 8, 11, 14, 19).