Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes (OPAL)

The expansion of palm oil is one of the main drivers of land-use change and deforestation in the tropics.

The conservation challenge

The expansion of palm oil provides significant economic earnings for producer countries, corporations and smallholders, but at a significant cost within and beyond the landscapes in which palm oil is grown. Stakeholders and decision-makers need to devise and adopt ‘green’ development trajectories that balance better development and conservation goals in an environment with pervasive uncertainties. A better understanding of socio-economic and ecological processes that shape environmental outcomes and the feedbacks that such outcomes impose on society will help chart a path towards more sustainable and inclusive futures.

Our response

We will investigate global and local priorities in selected palm oil landscapes across three countries over a six year time frame. We will work in Central Sumatra and East Kalimantan in Indonesia, Southwest Cameroon, and Orinoco (Llanos Orientales) and Caribbean region in Colombia, and construct an integrated socio-ecological model through tried and tested participatory approaches. To adequately capture the biophysical and institutional processes within the landscape, we envision modelling our landscapes at watershed scales. The overall objective is to improve the management of oil palm landscapes across Asia, Africa and Latin America. We have three specific objectives:

  • Describe the socio-ecological system and drivers of change: Develop an understanding of the socio-political, economic and ecological drivers shaping landscape transformation associated with palm oil development under different management systems and their environmental and livelihood outcomes.
  • Construct integrated models and scenarios of change: Develop conceptual models of palm oil landscapes that merge social and economic perspectives using participatory group modelling, and construct scenarios of possible futures explicitly addressing different management and policy options.
  • Engaging institutions for change: Link science to practice by embedding research in policy dialogues and decision making processes on management and regulatory frameworks at regional, national and sub-national scales.

We will explore how we improve the resilience of this socio-ecological system using integrated models of the future of biodiversity and ecosystem services including:

  • Models created at the landscape level and are built to explore relevant time horizons (decadal scales);
  • Models that are informed by multiple stakeholder perspectives and developed through participatory modelling approaches;
  • Models embedded in the decision-making processes at district, national and international scales to help stakeholders navigate and explore possible alternative futures.


We will engage with stakeholders at regional, national, and local levels with plausible scenarios developed through integrated platforms that merge the social, economic, and ecological drivers shaping palm oil development, and assess their implications on biodiversity and ecosystem services. We draw on the interdisciplinary nature of our consortium, and our collective presence in several countries, to undertake a long-term comparative project that spans regional contexts.

Research Outputs

Outputs will include:

  • Peer reviewed publication that will supplement existing knowledge with new targeted field research to describe agricultural production systems and livelihoods, and describe biophysical models characterizing biodiversity and ecosystem services within these landscapes;
  • Briefs for governments, local authorities and stakeholders that will link our results to decision-making processes and behaviour change.

The impact

  • The models and scenarios developed will provide conditional predictions of the consequences of specific policy and management options.
  • We will work with stakeholders to institutionalize arenas of conflict resolution that use the platforms and information products developed through this project as support for discussions and policy making.

Project partners


Project Leadership

Jaboury Ghazoul, Claude Garcia and Paolo Burlando (ETHZ); Pablo Pacheco (CIFOR), Ludovic Miiaro (WWF-CARPO), Sofia Ricon (WWF-Colombia); Irwan Gunawan and Putra Agung (WWF Indonesia); Malika Virah-Sawmy (Luc Hoffmann Institute)

LIVES Workshop Feb 2015

Developing role playing game on small holders certification scheme to assess barriers and opportunities to support smallholders in their sustainability trajectories : to be played with real actors in the field

Developing landscape role playing game for East Kalimantan to address key drivers of socio-ecological change: to be played with real actors in the field

Chris JohnsonOil Palm Adaptive Landscapes