Lian Pin Koh and David S. Wilcove propose in their Commentary 'Cashing in palm oil for conservation' (Nature 448, 993–994; 2007) that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should purchase and operate oil-palm plantations, and that they should use the revenue generated to expand the network of private reserves in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Because this would delay the establishment of reserves in a landscape that is rapidly degrading, Reuben Clements and Mary Rose C. Posa in Correspondence ('Conservationists could slip up in palm-oil enterprise' Nature 449, 403; doi:10.1038/449403d 2007) advise using available funds to purchase the reserves directly instead.

However, both strategies focus on purchasing land for reserves. In doing this, they are putting themselves in competition with a palm-oil industry that is worth more than $4 billion in annual exports from Indonesia alone, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, Rome, 2006).

Limited by their annual budget of only about $12 million, Indonesian NGOs are unlikely to be able to afford the cost of establishing sufficient reserves. Instead, what we suggest is that they combine a range of approaches to conservation, in order to maximize their influence through strategic alliances.

These include joining in with local communities who can sway development away from palm oil towards more sustainable land use, and working with carbon off-setters to redirect deforestation and carbon-sequestration payments to areas of high conservation value. NGOs should engage the palm-oil industry through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and encourage them to implement practices that improve the conservation value of their estate. The NGOs should also work to support an economically and ecologically sustainable timber industry.

Reserves should be purchased only if and when doing so is a more cost-effective means of conserving biodiversity than any of the available alternatives: that is, when resources are available, the benefits are substantial and the alternatives are limited.

Increasing consumer awareness of the impact of palm-oil production on biodiversity —particularly on orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) — is another important step. A resultant drop in the demand, by people concerned about the environment, for biodiesel from palm oil could curb the industry's growth.

The NGOs involved must move on to foster relationships that simultaneously work both with and against the palm-oil industry to limit its impact.