The SOPWA Project

The Sustainable Oil Palm in West Africa (SOPWA) Project aims to understand how traditional (i.e., practiced by local communities) and industrial (i.e., practiced by large-scale corporations) approaches to oil palm cultivation affect environmental conditions, biodiversity, and ecosystem functions in Liberia and West Africa more generally. By working closely with industry partners Golden Veroleum Liberia (GVL) and Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology Corporation Research Institute (SMARTRI), Government of Liberia partners, University of Liberia academics, and local Liberian communities, the project measures and compares ecological conditions across rainforest, country palm, and industrial oil palm systems.

Project objectives: 

  • quantify baseline levels of environmental conditions, biodiversity, and ecosystem functioning in rainforest ecosystems in Liberia, provided fundamental insights into how these systems are structured and function
  • measure and compare ecological conditions between rainforest, country palm (i.e., regenerating smallholder agriculture with wild-growing oil palms), and industrial oil palm systems
  • predict and model how forthcoming land use changes in West Africa may influence ecological conditions and oil palm yields.

Study set up

Fieldwork is based in Sinoe County, Liberia in and around industrial oil palm farms owned and managed by GVL. We established 54 plots of 50m x 50m in area, 18 of each in three systems (rainforest, country palm, industrial oil palm). Plots are clustered around six of GVL’s oil palm farms, forming a powerful hierarchical study design (Fig. 1).

Studied systems include:

  • Rainforest – areas of old-growth Upper Guinean rainforest
  • Country palm – abandoned community-managed farmlands with wild-growing palms, which local people still visit to harvest. Various crops were planted on farms before they were abandoned.
  • Industrial oil palm – large-scale monoculture oil palm plantations, which are managed according to GVL’s business-as-usual industry practises.
Figure 1. Map of study area in Sinoe County, Liberia. We have established study plots (50 x 50 m) in forest (N = 18; purple squares), country palm (N = 18; orange squares), and industrial oil palm (N = 18; red squares) systems. Our plots are spatially clustered in and around each of six of GVL’s industrial oil palm farms: Tarjuowon-North (purple), Tarjuowon-South (turquoise), Butaw (pink), Kpayan (blue), Tartweh (yellow), and Kabada (peach). The city of Greenville (pink hexagon), the capital of Sinoe County, is shown as a reference. Blue and brown lines indicate major rivers and roads, respectively.

Data Collection 

The SOPWA Project team is surveying environmental conditions, species groups, and ecosystem functions across monitoring plots. By collecting plot-level data on multiple factors, the team will eventually model how traditional and industrial approaches to oil palm cultivation affect whole-ecosystems in Liberia.

Figure 2. Looking upwards in a SOPWA Project rainforest plot.

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