An Edge Hill University Geography graduate has seen his dissertation on palm oil sustainability in Southeast Asia endorsed through its publication in an internationally-renowned publication.
Lewis Charters, who achieved a First Class honours in 2018, has been published in the long-running International Journal of Remote Sensing, a key scientific periodical.
His final-year dissertation was based on fieldwork undertaken around North Selangor Peat Swamp Forest in Malaysia. Findings highlighted the unsustainable pace of land conversion, due to the rate of tropical forest being destroyed for agricultural use. Lewis said:
“I have always been interested in human-nature interactions, and it’s apparent that we are exploiting our natural resources at an unsustainable rate. After learning about the widespread destruction of the world’s peat swamp forests to satisfy demand for agricultural commodities, I realised I could help raise awareness, by marrying my passion for sustainability with that of earth observation technology.
“Currently, the impacts of converting peat swamp forests to oil palm plantations are twofold. Firstly, the drainage and clearance of these vital ecosystems release enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which reinforces the effects of global climate change.
“Secondly, the irreversible biodiversity and ecosystem service loss can reduce the health and resilience of native ecosystems and communities. Therefore, it is vital that governments move to protect these ecosystems, whilst companies ensure that they strengthen their responsible sourcing commitments.
“We as consumers can also play our part, buying products that contain certified sustainable palm oil (i.e. indicated by the Roundtable RSPO logo on Sustainable Palm Oil ).”
Lewis presented his findings at the Athens Institute for Education and Research ‘Annual Globalisation and Sustainability Conference 2018’, while a second conference presentation was made by his dissertation supervisor and now co-author, Paul Aplin, at the Remote Sensing and Photogrammetry Society ‘UK National Earth Observation Conference 2018’ in Birmingham.
Following this success, Lewis’ first journal paper was published, entitled, ‘Peat swamp forest conservation withstands pervasive land conversion to oil palm plantation in North Selangor, Malaysia’.
“Palm oil has become an issue close to my heart. Having the opportunity to witness its associated benefits as well as its consequences first-hand, it is evident that its future sustainability is of upmost importance.
“Despite the issues, if produced sustainably, palm oil can be grown in ways that are both beneficial to nature as well as the people which depend upon its revenue.
“The fact that the research has helped raise awareness and in doing so, has started to get people thinking about the environmental and social impacts of the products they buy, is a rewarding outcome.”
The project experience gave Lewis the opportunity of managing an international team of leading academics, industry representatives, government officials and non-profit organisations, which included both Paul Aplin and Dr Chris Marston from Edge Hill, as well as UK and Malaysian researchers.
“The experience was certainly very challenging to begin with, as I had never done anything like this before. The need to work to a very tight deadline, juggle tasks and adapt to different cultures/time zones was exhausting. Although, with the continued support of my supervisor, I learned to embrace the opportunity and became determined to submit a successful publication.”
After completing his studies at Edge Hill, Lewis is studying towards his Masters in Climate Change and Environmental Policy.
“It became apparent from my undergraduate dissertation, that to contribute towards a sustainable solution, I needed to develop my understanding of both the policy making process and market-based initiatives.”
He now aspires to work at the heart of tackling the biggest global sustainability challenges. He is collaborating with WWF-UK as part of his Masters dissertation project, which aims to promote best practice amongst the business community, to help eliminate deforestation from key commodity supply chains such as beef, palm oil, soy, timber and cocoa. Paul Aplin commented:
“This is a rare event. In 20 years of lecturing, I’ve never published with an undergraduate before. It was a genuine research collaboration, with Lewis leading on the palm oil sustainability angle, while I advised principally on the technical image analysis. We are all delighted for him and have no doubt he will continue on to further research success.”
“I would like to extend my thanks to Paul for his guidance and encouragement as well as that of my fellow co-authors; without whom, none of this would have been possible. If it were not for the continued support and dedication of the Geography department, I simply would not be standing where I am today.”