Conservation news

3.5 million ha of Indonesian and Malaysian forest converted for palm oil in 20 years

Palm plantations expanding at 7% per year across Malaysia and Indonesia

Some 3.5 million hectares (8.7 million acres) of forest in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea was converted for oil palm plantations between 1990 and 2010, finds a comprehensive set of assessments released by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

The research, conducted by an international team of scientists from a range of institutions, is presented in a series of seven academic papers that estimate change in land use and greenhouse gas emissions from oil palm expansion in the three countries, review the social and environmental impacts of palm oil production, forecast potential growth in the sector across the region, and detail methods for measuring emissions and carbon stocks of plantations establishing on peatlands.

Oil palm plantation area and forested area (ha) in Peninsular Malaysia, 1975-2009
Oil palm plantation area and forested area (ha) in Peninsular Malaysia, 1975-2009

The findings rise above the rhetoric on palm oil, revealing the types of vegetation that have been converted for plantations. For example, 37 percent of all plantations established during the period came at the expense of forests, but only 4 percent of oil palm plantations came at the expense of old-growth forests. A paper authored by Petrus Gunarso of Tropenbos International and colleagues breaks down the conversion numbers further:

The share of deforestation for oil palm plantations has actually risen in recent years, from 20 percent between 2001 and 2005 to 36 percent between 2006 and 2010 (it was 48 percent in the 1990s). The finding shouldn’t be too surprising given the rise in palm oil prices since the earlier period. Nonetheless forest hasn’t been the primary target for expansion: a larger area of oil palm plantations was established in place of agroforests and rubber plantations, especially in Sumatra (59 percent) and Peninsular Malaysia (44 percent).

Summary of land use change in the Indonesian territories of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua (top) and Malaysia (bottom). Left column: land use prior to the establishment of new oil palm plantations (in the lower left corner is the total annual increase in oil palm plantations). Middle column: the fate of land following forest conversion (in the lower left corner is the annual rate of deforestation). Right column: net land use change over each five year period.

Most of the forest area that was converted consisted of disturbed natural lowland forest. There’s a simple explanation for this trend: with its valuable timber extracted, lowland forest offers low commercial returns for developers. But converting it to an oil palm plantation is a highly profitable proposition. Lowland areas tend to be targeted because they are more suited to cultivation and generally have better access than upland areas.

Large areas of grassland and scrub land were also converted for plantations, especially in Kalimantan. These areas were typically once forested but gave way to scrub and grassland after the large-scale el Niño fires in 1982-1983 and 1997-1998.

The studies found only a relatively small area of plantations — about 15 percent were established on peatlands — but this conversion had a disproportionate impact on greenhouse gas emissions since drainage of peat soils releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

“By 2010, plantations on peat constituted 18% (2.4 million ha) of the spatial footprint of palm oil, but emission from peat fires and peat oxidation were the source of approximately 64% (118 million of CO2 per year) of the total emissions from land use linked to industrial scale oil palm plantations,” wrote Fahmuddin Agus and colleagues in one of the papers.

Development of oil palm plantations on peat soils in Indonesia and Malaysia between 1990 and 2010.

The researchers reported a sharp rise in emissions from conversion of peatlands for plantations, climbing from 26 million tons of carbon dioxide per year in the 1990s to 56 million tons between 2001-2005 and 88 million tons between 2006 and 2010, as the availability of lowland areas waned and developers increasingly sought out peatlands.

However the research suggests that forest degradation is generally a larger source of emissions than palm oil production.

“In Indonesia, the largest source of historical CO2 emissions from land use change was due to forest degradation (40%), either from the transition from undisturbed forest to disturbed forest due to logging or from the degradation of degraded forest to shrub land by wildfire,” stated an overview paper by Timothy J. Killeen of the World Wildlife Fund and Jeremy Goon of Wilmar International, the world’s largest palm oil trader. “GHG emission from land use change and peat oxidation between 2006 and 2010 showed that the palm oil sector contributed 16% of total emissions from land use and land use change in Indonesia and 32% in Malaysia.”

But looking forward, the impact of palm oil on forests and greenhouse gas emissions is projected to grow, according to a paper led by Nancy L. Harris of Winrock International. Assuming a business-as-usual approach toward expansion, Harris forecasts net emissions of 15.2 billion tons of CO2 by 2050 from the palm oil sector. The jump in emissions would mostly be the product of expansion into carbon-dense peatland areas and rainforests, especially in Borneo, Sumatra, and New Guinea. But establishing a moratorium on peat conversion coupled with an emphasis on boosting yields could potentially reduce emissions 50 percent from a business-as-usual track. A moratorium combined with the gradual abandonment of plantations on peat soils and restoration of natural forests in these areas would lead to a zero emissions path, while still increasing the total acreage of oil palm plantations in the region by 62 percent, effectively doubling palm oil output.

That latter path would help avoid some of the detrimental social and environmental impacts discussed in a paper authored by Arina P. Schrier-Uij of Wetlands International together with researchers from other NGO’s. The paper argues that the simplest way to limit emissions is to prevent conversion of peatlands for plantations.

Total mean annual emissions stratified by source of emissions for above ground carbon (AGC) due to land use change (LUC) and the oxidation of peat soils due to drainage and conversion; excludes emissions from peat fires due the lack of fire data for all land cover types.

Taken together, the series of papers provide a substantial amount of data on the past, current, and future state of oil palm plantations in the world’s top palm oil producing countries. They also touch on several of important impacts of oil palm expansion, including greenhouse gas emissions, subsidence and flooding, biodiversity loss, increased fire risk, loss of ecosystem services, and effects on local communities.

According to the RSPO, the papers are intended to help “inform an ongoing discussion within the RSPO about greenhouse gas emissions and palm oil.”

“Hopefully, it will also shed light on a larger discussion that includes policy makers, academics and the general public.”

The papers, which have been long-awaited by observers of the RSPO, were released just prior to the start of body’s annual roundtable, which meets this year from November 11-14 in Medan, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The RSPO aims to address ongoing concerns over palm oil through the establishment of social and environmental standards.

Reports from the Technical Panels of the 2nd Greenhouse Gas Working Group of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

Supplementary Materials