past projects

Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes (OPAL)

Improving the management of oil palm landscapes across Asia, Africa and Latin America

The challenge

Palm oil from fruits of the oil palm tree is an ingredient in many food and cosmetic products. Recent expansion of oil palm plantations across the tropics has caused deforestation and biodiversity loss, and has been linked with the displacement of people from traditionally managed land.

The expansion of palm oil provides significant income for producer countries, corporations and smallholders, but at a significant social and environmental cost within and beyond the landscapes in which oil palm is grown.

Stakeholders and decision-makers need to devise and adopt ‘green’ development approaches that better balance development and conservation. This means better understanding the social, economic and ecological processes that shape environmental outcomes and the impacts these outcomes have on society.

The response

Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes (OPAL), an ETH Zurich-led project in which the Luc Hoffmann Institute (LHI) is a partner has been investigating global and local priorities in selected palm oil landscapes. These are in Central Sumatra and East Kalimantan in Indonesia, Southwest Cameroon, and Orinoco (Llanos Orientales) and Caribbean region of Colombia.

The overall aim is to improve the management of oil palm landscapes across Asia, Africa and Latin America through:

  • Understanding 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.
  • Developing models of palm oil landscapes that merge social and economic perspectives using ‘participatory group modelling’, and building future scenarios that cover different management and policy options.
  • Linking science to practice by embedding research in policy dialogues and decision-making processes.

The impact

The project has created a large consortium of partners who are working together. These range from ETH Zurich to local universities such as Bogor University, Javeriana University, and practitioners such as CIFOR, CIRAD, WWF Colombia, WWF Cameroon and LHI.

Each group of partners at the local level have convened relevant stakeholders. In Colombia, Javeriana University, NES Naturaleza and WWF Colombia convened a group of 14 key stakeholders from 11 public and private institutions to begin the process of developing the PARDI model relating to oil palm plantations in the Llanos (Orinoco Basin) region.

In Cameroon, the modelling work has been used to understand the constraints and drivers that shape palm oil transformation inefficiencies. Based on information from experts, OPAL developed a palm oil supply chain role-playing game (CoPalCam) to explore plausible scenarios of future sustainable oil palm development. This was tested with experts and then validated with local producers. It was also used to engage the inter-ministerial committee regulating the palm oil sector as well as experts from UNEXPALM (union of palm oil producers) during a workshop in April 2016.

The role-playing games, created with local stakeholders, provide platforms where conflicts can be identified and discussed, and solutions negotiated. They have promoted multi-stakeholder dialogues for regional land use planning of the palm sector in Colombia’s Orinoco region. The Cameroonian Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development is using the games to help create farmer cooperatives. In Indonesia the games are being used to visualise and negotiate conflicts between oil palm growers and downstream fishing communities. The games are also being used to explore oil palm sustainability with partners in Switzerland, ranging from representatives of retail companies and conservation organisations, to schoolchildren in Zurich. At all these levels, incremental change in understanding and action is facilitated by representing oil palm production scenarios as games through which people can interact, learn, and, ultimately, negotiate better solutions.

Project partners

ETHZ, CIFOR, WWF-CARPO, WWF-Colombia, WWF Indonesia.

Project leaders

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).

Related reading

An introduction to companion modelling

ARDI: a co-construction method for participatory modeling in natural resources management

Evaluating participatory modeling: developing a framework for cross-case analysis

past projects

Assessing sustainability standards

One of the most pressing conservation challenges facing our global society is how to meet the growing human demand for food, fuel, and fibre while sustaining environmental services and biodiversity within the earth’s capacity.

Assessing Sustainability Standards

One of the most pressing conservation challenges facing society is how to meet the growing human demand for food, fuel, and fibre while sustaining environmental services and biodiversity within the earth’s capacity.

The so-called soft commodities – agriculture, forest products and seafood – are responsible for feeding and clothing the world. They generate jobs and sustain growth. While their importance is clear, their impacts on the natural environment and surrounding communities are profound. From habitat conversion and soil erosion to pollution of soil and water, the soft commodities significantly degrade the services provided by nature.

To address this challenge, multistakeholder initiatives including NGOs and businesses have promoted the use of certification standards designed to increase the sustainability of agricultural, forest and seafood commodity production across the world. Yet the effectiveness, limits and unmet opportunities of certification are not clear, and are likely to vary significantly across commodities, scales, producer and consumer cultures and conditions, and supply chains.

Supporters of certification, and the producers and businesses that standards bodies serve, are increasingly demanding better evidence on the outcomes and impacts of certification. A considerable amount of work has been done on synthesising research on sustainability standards, and efforts are continuing to improve the evidence. LHI is exploring the underlying reasons for the scarcity of evidence identified using existing synthesis reviews, with a deeper focus on what standards themselves are doing to monitor and evaluate assess their own impacts.

The report will help guide the certification engagement strategies of NGOs, businesses and standards bodies and provide a basis for re-evaluating approaches to monitoring and evaluation.

Project partners

We are working closely with the WWF network, ISEAL Alliance and standards bodies themselves to develop a better understanding of the reasons for the misalignment between the demand for and supply of rigorous evidence on the impact of sustainability standards.

Project leaders

Malika Virah-Sawmy (Luc Hoffmann Institute) and Richard Gauld (Luc Hoffmann Institute/WWF Germany).

Related reading

Environmental and Social Standards, Certification and Labelling for Cash Crops

An agenda for assessing and improving conservation impacts of sustainability standards in tropical agriculture

The state of sustainability initiatives review 2014: standards in the green economy

Toward sustainability: the roles and limits of certification


The Role of Civil Society in Recalibrating Conservation Science Incentives


Pressure to publish in top-tier, disciplinary journals is intense (Card & DellaVigna 2013). And because top-tier journals reflect the insular nature of the scientific process, where excellence is defined by novelty, elegance, and conceptual advance, rather than specific, applicable solutions to difficult problems, decks are often stacked against scientists exploring areas with immediate policy relevance. There is clear recognition—both within some academic institutions and within civil society organizations—that this condition reduces the impact and relevance of science on conservation policy and practice (Uriarte et al. 2007).

Civil society organizations depend on knowledge creation from academic disciplines. If or because these organizations want a larger portion of academics to work on solutions to difficult problems with immediate relevance, they need to reduce the direct and indirect costs of that relevance. Civil society must provide stronger and more creative incentives to bring disciplinary experts together around the complex issues that will have the greatest impact on conservation success, and they need to work harder to define and communicate what these complex issues are.

Want more? Read the full article (open access of course) or download the PDF!


Natural Decline (?)


In an article published late last month (J. J. Tewksbury et al. BioScience; 2014), Joshua Tewksbury, a naturalist and director of the Luc Hoffmann Institute at the conservation group WWF in Gland, Switzerland, and 16 colleagues issue a call to arms. They chronicle the dismaying diminution of support for natural history — that branch of science that encompasses the careful observation and description of organisms and their relations to their environments. Like all good scientists, they offer the data to support their assertion.

In the United States of 1950, an undergraduate degree in biology generally required two or more courses in natural history. Today, the average number of required natural-history courses for the same degree is zero. The amount of natural-history content in biology textbooks has dropped by 40% over the past six decades. PhDs granted in natural-history-related fields are becoming ever rarer. Biological collections are on the wane as well. The number of herbaria — research collections of plant specimens — in Europe and North America peaked in 1990.

Read the full editorial or go straight to the original article (all open access, of course).


Discover more about Dr. Josh Tewksbury’s journey from the world of Academia to the Luc Hoffmann Institute

As a conservation scientist, I have spent a lot of time pursuing applied conservation questions. Along with thousands of other folks in academic institutions, I was publishing papers and hoping to generate research results that would inform conservation practice and policy.

But there came a time a few years ago when I realized that my science, by itself, no matter how good it was, would likely make very little difference in the world beyond academia.

This realization came from really looking at the process by which research enters practice and policy. Because of large differences in incentives, motivations, culture and timelines, the gap between the world of research and the world of practice and policy is large, and so only a very small fraction of the work that gets done in the name of conservation actually informs conservation practice and policy. Most of it never even gets registered in the debate. And yet with our increasingly global society, with information generation growing at an exponential rate, we just don’t have the luxury of that level of inefficiency anymore. We’ve got to find ways of connecting research capacity, practice and policy savvy around the critical issues.

And there is plenty of urgency here. First, because the policy debates and strategy decisions going on right now in governments, insurance agencies, large and small businesses, and NGOs around the world are taking place, generally, without all the best evidence at hand (and their decisions often reflect this). Second, looking forward to the next 20-30 years, I think it is fair to say that the human proposition, as it is currently laid out across the world, will require a global-scale transition that crosses many sectors and changes many aspects of our society. The functioning of our global society simply depends in too many ways on the stability of our natural resources, and many of our current approaches are now pushing up against the limits imposed by the planet. Part of the issue, of course, is timing. There are many great innovations trying to break in, but the global system has been slow to change.

Yet despite the slow pace of change, and in some cases because of it, many leaders in government, the private sector, and civil society are struggling to engineer, or at least influence, this transition. Everyone picks their tools and their metaphors, ranging from Donella Meadows’ transition to sustainable society, Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’ and Johan Rockstrom’s ‘Planetary Boundaries’ to the various definitions and blueprints for a “Blue Economy” or “Green Economy” future and the Chinese Communist Party’s framing of the issues as a transition to an “Ecological Civilization.” As the Director of the newly formed Luc Hoffmann Institute, I have found myself walking pretty far out on this sheet of metaphors, attempting to figure out where a stronger evidence-base is needed, where better research can help build a ladder to where we want to go. As a scientist, it feels a bit like ice-fishing in spring – it is best done with a safety line.

The solution is to break the issues down and get the evidence in place to crack the hard problems, the “wicked problems” that are underneath all of these metaphors. These are often complex-system issues, involving multiple disciplines, linking the intricacies of human behavior and social dynamics to the complexities in natural and human-modified systems. They are typically too thorny to be solved by individual researchers or even small teams from the same field. Issues like finding the appropriate pricing system for the social cost of carbon, indicating the inherent socio-economic value of intact ecosystems and the services they provide, choosing which conservation interventions will have maximum impact, and securing the food, energy and water needs over the next 30 to 50 years for an ever growing population. These are issues where individual excellence is absolutely necessary and not nearly sufficient.

And this is where boundary organizations like the Luc Hoffmann Institute are key. The Luc Hoffmann institute sits at the crossroads between civil-society and science, searching for the strategic paths where evidence can deliver change, and bringing together diverse groups of thought-leaders that can create that evidence. What we do is science and synthesis inspired by policy and practice needs and hitched to policy and practice uptake. It is exciting because when done right, it creates change, and if it is hitched to an organization with enough capacity, the results can be large.

And this is why the Luc Hoffmann Institute has a particularly interesting role to play. We have the honour of being named after Luc Hoffmann, one of the founders of WWF, and a person who has brought science and conservation together again and again to benefit people and our planet. On top of that, we sit at the nerve center of WWF. As one of the world’s largest and most experienced global conservation organizations, with over 5 million supporters, 6000 staff, and a global network active in more than 100 countries. The reach of the organization, and its capacity to be ‘local’ around the world (representing over 60 national NGOs, each local in its own country), gives it a unique ability to help turn evidence into action. WWF’s mission is to stop the degradation of our planet’s natural environment, and build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature. The Luc Hoffmann Institute’s goal is to bring the knowledge and evidence to the table fast enough to make that possible. More generally, our goal is to build stronger links between science and urgent solutions to the most pressing issues facing ourselves and our planet. We aim to be the premier partner for global research and synthesis seeking to respond to the problems that stand in the way of sustainability.

We are already working on multiple projects, collaborating with other leading synthesis centers, and looking for top talent for two Luc Hoffmann Fellows positions. We also have a call out now, asking researchers and experts around the world to team up with WWF staff and pitch us ideas for collaborative research and synthesis. These calls are at the interface of research and practice, science and policy, and that is why we have opened up our “pitch” to everyone.

At the Luc Hoffmann Institute, we are engaging in a global debate about the future of conservation and sustainability. We can’t do this alone. We look forward to hearing from you, and working together on the solutions we all need today for tomorrow’s world.