In a novel 'farming with the enemy' approach, Lian Pin Koh and David S. Wilcove (Nature 448, 993–994; 2007) suggest that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should cash in on the lucrative oil-palm industry and buy small tracts of existing plantations to generate revenue for nature reserves. Such a scheme has many potential complications and ramifications.

According to Koh and Wilcove's figures, an NGO would require $62.5 million to purchase 5,000 hectares of mature oil palm; the same sum of money would buy 11,000 hectares of forested land outright. It would take six years to recoup this investment through revenues from the plantation. Only then could forested land be bought, at 1,800 hectares a year, reaching a total of 11,000 hectares 12 years after the oil-palm purchase. Given the high rates of deforestation in southeast Asia, it seems more prudent to simply acquire forests now.

NGOs may spread themselves too thin if they engage in a large business that will divert considerable manpower, time and expertise away from threatened-species recovery programmes and public outreach. In addition, acquisition of oil-palm plantations by NGOs may exacerbate current rates of land conversion, by reducing the number of hectares available for other private plantation owners. And we fail to see how the proposed scheme will prompt companies to commit to good management practices, such as those advocated by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil ( Instead, oil-palm monoculture could be legitimized as 'green' by an NGO's association with companies that are required to do nothing more than assist in starting up their plantations.

We propose instead that NGOs actively engage oil-palm companies to fund reserves, in return for environmentally friendly accreditation and help in implementing guidelines for sustainability.

Although conservationists must find creative ways to raise funds sustainably, doing so through an industry that has negative impacts on biodiversity may ultimately be counterproductive.