Palm oil certification schemes are failing to improve the protection of endangered orangutans or the livelihoods of farmers on the island of Borneo, a University of Queensland (UoQ) study has found.

Conducted in collaboration with the UoQ, the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) and Borneo Futures, the study discovered that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) scheme was plagued by vague targets, concepts and terminology that left too much open to interpretation, UoQ said in a 13 June statement.

UoQ PhD candidate Courtney Morgans said the researchers found that palm plantations with RSPO certification did not excel compared to their non-certified equivalents when it came to protecting the orangutans and that it was difficult to detect the impact of certification.

“There also wasn’t a clear sign that RSPO was improving levels of wealth or improving access to health infrastructure for villagers neighbouring the plantations. The only small benefits were to certified companies, which were associated with marginally higher yields,” said Morgans.

The UoQ study was the first of its kind, creating the most comprehensive map and dataset to date of RSPO-certified sites in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo, the university said.

However, the researchers still said the RSPO was a valuable opportunity to prevent the extinction of species and to increase equity.

“Certification is good in theory and RSPO is the best vehicle currently available to improve the sustainability of the palm oil industry, but there is significant room for improvement,” Morgans said.

“Even between shareholders, there are different interpretations of what ‘sustainable’ means. The RSPO is currently being revised and it’s possible new standards could be in place before the end of the year. We need to make sure we use this valuable opportunity to adopt the critical changes needed to improve the sustainability scheme,” she added.

According to another recent study by Liverpool John Moores University, 100,000 orangutans – roughly 50% of all orangutans on Borneo – had been killed between 1999 and 2015, although not all because of palm oil production, wrote Australian ABC News.

About 70,000-100,000 orangutans remained in the wilds of Borneo.