- A new study quantifies the impact of palm oil on forest cover in Borneo.
- The results indicate that the plantation industry was the principle driver of the loss of old-growth forest in Malaysian Borneo.
- The good news, at least for Indonesia, is that considerably more oil palm has been developed on land that had been cleared many years previously.
- This post is a commentary — the views expressed are those of the authors.
Among the World’s most controversial industries, palm oil production is once again in the headlines. The polarized rhetoric and contradictory claims – concerning who really did what and where – shows the need for objective information concerning what really is going on. A new publication, led by David Gaveau of CIFOR, provides just that and moves us towards objectively judging the impacts of palm oil. And to say that such information “is urgently needed” is an understatement.
In August 2016, at the International Peat Congress in Kuching, a keynote speaker from the Sarawak Oil Palm Plantation Owners Association, started with a frontal attack on NGOs. “Today, the oil palm industry in Sarawak bears witness to the success story of the planting of oil palm on peatland. But the journey ahead continues to face challenges from unfounded attacks and criticism from NGOs who demonize the palm oil industry in the face of the stiff competition it poses to the seed oil industry of Europe.” The speaker then continued to compare the criticism of the palm oil industry as “reminiscent of genocide acts waged by the Dutch East India Company against inhabitants of the Maluku Islands to exert a monopoly over the spice trade in the region”, and that “the tactics employed by present-day NGOs to demonize palm oil are no different in their hideousness and patronizing attitude.”
We are not going to argue about the ethics of the Dutch East India Company, or whether its approach to creating wealth for its investors is more like that of the palm oil industry or that of its critics. But it is obvious that there are sharply conflicting views dividing those concerned about oil palm. Reconciliation seems a distant option. It requires open, fair and transparent dialogue between the opponents and proponents of palm oil.
That dialogue won’t be smoothed over either by recent revelations of apparent illegal land clearing and burning practices by the South Korean Korindo group in Papua and Halmahera and by oil palm plantation company Andika Permata Sawit Lestari (APSL). At a time when the Indonesian government talks about extending the existing moratorium on new palm oil licenses, there is evidence that the Korindo group cleared more than 50,000 hectares of tropical lowland forests and that APSL burned 2,000 ha of land on State Forest land where agricultural developments are illegal according to national law.
Although oil palm companies cannot legally operate outside their concessions, up to 30 percent of the total land area developed by companies do not possess formal concession titles, a recent study has found. These are ugly stories indicating how companies ignore environmental regulations.
It is obvious that the palm oil industry remains as divisive as ever. Proponents, such as the companies in the industry, the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia and many other tropical countries, and many rural communities embrace large-scale palm oil developments for the socio-economic benefits it can bring. Opponents hate the industry for its environmental and social impacts.
The new study brings objective data to the table and helps inform both the proponents and opponents of the industry. It indicates, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the truth lies between their claims. The scientists found that 76 percent of Borneo, the third largest island in the world, was old-growth forest in 1973. In 2015, 50 percent of the island remained forested, and 12 percent of Borneo was covered in industrial plantations, both for the production of palm oil and pulp and paper.
The study found contrasting patterns between Indonesia and Malaysia’s conversion process, i.e. the amount of time between deforestation and plantation development. In Malaysian Borneo, the plantation industry was the principle driver of the loss of old-growth forest, as 57–60 percent of all deforestation over four decades was associated with rapid conversion (within five years of forest clearance) to industrial plantations.
In Kalimantan, on the other hand, only 15–16 percent of all deforestation was associated with rapid conversion to industrial plantations (11–13 percent attributed to oil-palm) as the majority of oil-palm plantations were developed on lands cleared before 1973 and on degraded lands (predominantly forests converted to scrublands by drought and recurrent burning). This shows that the majority of oil palm plantations in Kalimantan were developed on degraded lands, meaning forests converted to ferns, grasslands and scrubs by drought and recurrent burning, mainly during El Niño years.
Importantly, however, the study found that Kalimantan has experienced a steep increase in rapid within-five-year conversion since 2005, in line with the global oil palm boom. In Kalimantan, oil palm became the principle contributor of rapid net forest conversion by area (1.2 Mha). And this rapid deforestation continued after 2010 when Indonesia announced a moratorium against further forest clearing for oil palm development. It seems obvious that in Kalimantan at least, the oil palm moratorium is not achieving its objectives.
The good news, at least for Indonesia, is that considerably more oil palm has been developed on land that had been cleared many years previously, than recognized by most opponents of the industry. This is what the conservation community has promoted for decades. Development on degraded lands is a cornerstone of sustainable palm oil development, compatible with certification schemes and recent zero-deforestation pledges. Seen from that perspective, Indonesia seems to have done much better than has been widely assumed – though since 2005 the sharp increase in rapid conversion gives little room for complacency. Despite planting on degraded lands, deforestation remains very high and does not appear to be slowing. We need to do much more to protect Borneo’s forests.
As with many things that are often seen in black and white, there is a significant grey area with lighter and darker hues that few pay attention to or are willing to factor into their rhetoric. But the truth is that oil palm is not always a bad thing. It generates a sizable amount of revenue for people and is very efficient in generating incomes from limited land. Stigmatizing an entire crop is not useful. It’s not the crop that is the problem but where and how we grow it.
The new study is a major step forward in distinguishing between the good, the bad, and the ugly in the palm oil and other plantation industries. It can help the Indonesian government in its goal towards more sustainable management. It can also help those companies with good social and environmental management to different themselves from their less scrupulous competitors.