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Coconut oil production threatens five times more species than palm oil

 Adjunct Professor of Conservation, University of Kent/ From the conversation.com.- 

With nothing better to do, I picked up a husky fruit lying in the sand, and spent the next few hours trying to open it with my bare hands. A few scratches and broken fingernails later, I managed to get to the nut’s core.

It was dry inside, no water. It had probably been steaming in the sun for a long time. That coconut was among my early disappointments, but it taught me to look beyond an enticing shell.

Years later, working as a conservation scientist studying orangutans in Indonesia, one thing started to bug me. I had been doing a lot of work on another tropical crop, the infamous oil palm, whose plantations are the scourge of tropical wildlife. If social media is anything to go by, people hate oil palm, but they love products from the coconut palm.

Supermarket shelves are stacked with coconut water, tubs of coconut oil and cream, coconut and chocolate bars. Like palm oil, coconut seems to be used in almost everything, from hair conditioner to mosquito repellent. So why is one palm loved and the other hated?

Oil crops and biodiversity
The oil palm tree is slightly more heavy-set, but otherwise indistinguishable from its coconut cousin. Oil palm is often associated with orangutans and other tropical species, because the role of plantations in destroying forest habitat is well known. When interviewing people about oil palm cultivation in 2018, I found that well over half answered that it must be negative, or even extremely negative, for the environment.

Coconut, on the other hand, appears to enjoy a sunnier reputation, with 53% of consumers in a global poll citing coconut oil’s health benefits, but few identifying its environmental impact. After all, it grows along tropical beaches that people pay a lot of money to visit, so how could it be bad?

coco3The latest estimates indicate that there are 20 million hectares of planted oil palm in the world, and 12.5 million hectares of coconut. But coconut palms are mostly grown on tropical islands, many of which possess remarkable numbers of species found nowhere else on Earth. So despite its benign reputation, coconut has a surprisingly large negative impact on tropical biodiversity.

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