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An interactive map connects landowners and forest change in one of the world’s most biodiverse places

Proboscis monkeys grooming.

Proboscis monkeys grooming. Photo credit:_Sue Palminteri

  • The Atlas of Deforestation and Industrial Plantations in Borneo documents the loss of rainforest over 40 years from oil palm and pulpwood plantations in one of Earth’s most biodiverse places.
  • By connecting landowners and deforestation patterns publicly available, the atlas adds transparency to wood and oil palm supply chains.
  • Allowing users to see how human impacts have reshaped Borneo is essential amid competing demands for cheap oil and conserved forest.

Borneo– it is a name that evokes images of a faraway island, resplendent with tall trees, thick jungle, diverse cultural traditions, and many strange and wonderful animals, including proboscis monkeys, orangutans, and a host of flying critters, including squirrels, “lemurs,” lizards, frogs, and snakes.

A flying ‘lemur’, which actually glides using skin on its front legs and is called a colugo, is one of many gliding animals that rely on Borneo’s forest canopy. Photo credit: Lip Kee Yap, CC 2.0

This vision would be accurate, 40 years ago. In 1973, old-growth forests covered 56 million hectares (140 million acres), 76 percent of Borneo’s land area (Gaveau et al, 2016). They supported over 15,000 different plant species.

Between 1973 and 2015, however, over one-third of these forests (19 million ha / 48 million acres) were cleared.

The prime culprit for forest loss in Borneo has been the industrial-scale clearing of forest to create tree plantations, especially oil palm and timber for making wood pulp and paper. Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s top two producers of palm oil, together producing 85 percent of the global harvest. Oil palm alone, in fact, covers some 8 million ha (20 million ac) of Borneo’s landscape. Fires, mines, and dams have destroyed additional thousands of hectares of Bornean forest.

David Gaveau, a scientist at the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), told Mongabay-Wildtech, “Borneo feeds the world with palm oil, a multi-billion-dollar business encompassing cosmetics, processed food and biofuels to drive our cars. It is also a major center for pulp and paper production. Borneo currently has the largest deforestation rates in the world.”

An oil palm plantation replaces forest in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

An atlas of deforestation

Gaveau and colleagues at CIFOR have created an interactive Atlas of Deforestation and Industrial Plantations in Borneo that brings together 42 years of maps into one searchable map for anyone to learn about the island’s forests, wildlife, forest loss and the players involved. The atlas documents the impact of global wood pulp and palm oil consumption on Borneo’s pristine ancient (i.e. old-growth or primary) rainforests.

Gaveau, who leads the project, explained that the atlas “reveals the extent to which the pristine and ancient rainforests of Borneo have been degraded by industrial logging and wildfires, or converted to industrial plantations of oil palm and pulpwood since 1973.”

The Atlas compiles and displays data from satellite images, land ownership and soil maps to illustrate who controls the lands where deforestation occurs and where oil palm and pulpwood plantations expand. Landsat images show forest cover data at 30 m x 30 m resolution, meaning each pixel in each image is 30 meters on a side, a fine enough scale to detect deforestation patches smaller than one hectare (2.5 acres).

Screenshots of the Borneo Atlas from its mobile app show the types of information a user can access: (1) Home screen of the Borneo Atlas; (2) Using the search tool (click on search icon), users can extract the deforestation footprint of 120 oil palm and pulpwood companies and view their concessions across the island; (3) Deforestation footprint of palm oil giant Wilmar; (4) Concessions in Borneo owned by Wilmar (in orange). Image credit: CIFOR

The atlas took four years to create. Determining the expansion of small and medium-holder oil palm plantations across Borneo over a period of four decades required analyzing very high-resolution satellite imagery, which is not consistently available, as well as visual interpretation of these images by two experts to extract the land parcel boundaries. All of the maps in the atlas have been validated and peer-reviewed and are published here (Gaveau et al. 2014) and here (Gaveau et al. 2016).

In developing the atlas, the CIFOR team found a surprising difference in the timing of industrial tree plantation establishment between Indonesian and Malaysian sections of Borneo. The oil palm industry has been the main driver of forest loss in Malaysian Borneo (Sabah and Sarawak). Roughly 60 percent of all deforestation recorded over four decades was caused by commodities companies, and most of their planting was done on lands recently cleared of their forest, suggesting that oil palm and timber triggered the deforestation.  In Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan), only 16 percent of the recorded deforestation was caused by companies. A large proportion of oil palm plantations in Kalimantan were developed on lands cleared before 1973 or where fires had already converted primary forest to scrublands. After 2005, however, the oil palm industry became the principal driver of deforestation in Kalimantan.

Gaveau acknowledged that small plantations <500 ha (1,250 acres) cannot consistently be distinguished over time in the Landsat imagery. Smallholder plantations often lack the large, linear planting patterns of industrial plantations and may mix several kinds of trees in one plantation. These features make it difficult to visually separate a smallholder plantation in the images from an old clearing covered in young forest regrowth. These smaller-scale plantations represented roughly 11 percent of oil palm plantings in Indonesian Borneo in 2013, some of which likely replaced old-growth forest.

A broad audience

Anyone can rapidly access the Borneo atlas online from laptop, tablet or smartphone to view the extent of the forest area in 1973, before extractive industries began, and to track the loss of forest to logging, oil palm, and pulpwood plantation from 1973 through 2015. Users can also determine spatial extent over time of forest change in oil palm and pulpwood concessions that they would like to view, including:

Data sets currently available in the Borneo deforestation atlas. Image credit: CIFOR

“The tool,” said Gaveau, “is an open platform for researchers, advocacy groups, journalists and anyone interested in deforestation, wildlife habitats and corporate actions…. With a search tool, users can extract the deforestation footprint of individual concessions, of a group of concessions belonging to a conglomerate, of concessions that have similar biological attributes, for example, all concessions on peatlands.” Users can thus see how well companies follow their sustainability commitments, such as avoiding clearing natural forest or draining peatlands.

Peat forest in Borneo. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

The data are also free to download. Map developer Mohammad Agus Salim added, “Anyone can download the maps for their own use on a GIS. We coded this entire open-access interactive platform with JavaScript and ArcGIS cloud. This is transparency, [to] monitor the supply chain of palm oil.” More advanced users can apply the spatial analysis (GIS) scripts to their own data.

How can the atlas help reduce forest loss?  

The atlas is also meant to help governments and commodities producers work toward meeting their commitments to greener supply chains by allowing them to see results of their suppliers and land use practices on the ground. Salim explained in a in a CIFOR press release, “Large companies with sustainability commitments, such as zero deforestation pledges, may not have complete information at their disposal about their individual concessions. The baseline deforestation we present in this atlas allows them to track those pledges.”

“No-one wants the food we are eating or paper we write on to be the reasons for old-growth forest disappearance,” said Gaveau.  “Companies are now aware that they cannot clear forests any longer, and many are now promising to clean up their supply chain. This atlas brings professionals and consumers the information and evidence they need to verify whether companies halt deforestation or keep clearing in Borneo. We hope with the transparency enabled by the tool, we can assist companies to work toward sustainability standards like RSPO, or its Indonesian and Malaysian equivalents.”

Gaveau added, “If we visualize the damage caused over time by a supply chain like palm oil on the Bornean forested landscape, then many people along the supply chain, from producers to buyers, can participate in cleaning up that supply chain.”

New oil palm plantation established on peatland outside Palangkaraya, capital of Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

What’s next?

The team is updating the data to track forest change in 2016 and 2017. It also plans to expand the tool to include other areas of threatened forests in Sumatra, Papua and peninsular Malaysia and to additional industries related to forest loss. The atlas currently focuses on corporate oil palm and pulpwood plantations and areas impacted by roads, fires and hydropower dams. Gaveau mentioned, “We will soon release data on open-pit mines, and their impact on forest cover, termed mining company-driven deforestation, using the same methods.”

The aptly-named proboscis monkey is endemic to Borneo’s mangrove and riparian forests. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri

“We plan to add the location [and ownership] of mills and refineries where palm oil bunches are brought from plantations to be processed,” explained Salim. Examining processing facilities together with forest loss allows companies and watchdogs to track the relationship between mills and concessions. “Our aim is to trace palm oil and pulpwood from production to consumption.”

Gaveau said he hopes that governments, NGOs, and others in Southeast Asia and around the world, can use the information in this atlas to leverage companies for more sustainable practices. He said, “NGOs in Singapore already use this atlas to screen Singaporean palm oil companies. Company executives in charge of sustainable development at headquarters already use the atlas to monitor the deforestation on their lands, adjust their sustainable policies and actions accordingly, and verify corporate commitments to zero-deforestation.

More broadly, he added, “The Borneo atlas gives everyone the opportunity to review the evidence for themselves and think about the impacts of their consumption habits on the rainforests of Southeast Asia. Half of Borneo remains forested today. Not all is lost. I hope that the Borneo Atlas will continue to be used to hold companies accountable, and work together with government, NGOs, business and communities to protect remaining forests.”

See some of Borneo’s “flying” creatures (they actually glide) in action in this National Geographic video. They all depend on the intact forest canopy to reach their next destination.

Banner image shows younger proboscis monkeys grooming. Photo credit: Sue Palminteri


Gaveau, D.L., Sloan, S., Molidena, E., Yaen, H., Sheil, D., Abram, N.K., Ancrenaz, M., Nasi, R., Quinones, M., Wielaard, N. and Meijaard, E. 2014. Four decades of forest persistence, clearance and logging on Borneo. PloS one9(7), p.e101654.

Gaveau, D. L., Sheil, D., Husnayaen, M. A. S., Arjasakusuma, S., Ancrenaz, M., Pacheco, P., & Meijaard, E. 2016. Rapid conversions and avoided deforestation: examining four decades of industrial plantation expansion in Borneo. Scientific Reports6.