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Study: RSPO certification prunes deforestation in Indonesia — but not by much

  • Oil palm plantations certified as sustainable by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil had less deforestation than non-certified plantations, according to a new analysis.
  • Certification’s effect on the incidence of fires and the clearing of forest from peatlands was not statistically significant.
  • The research demonstrates that while certification does reduce deforestation, it has not protected very much standing forest from being cut down.

New research demonstrates that sustainability certification through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil does cut down on deforestation in Indonesia’s palm oil industry. But the new study, published online Monday by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also says that RSPO standards don’t appear to be saving a very large area of forest.

“Even if we’re saying there’s a significant effect on forests, the amount of forests protected is tiny,” Kimberly Carlson, a land systems scientist at the University of Hawaii and the lead author of the study, said in an interview.

A recently developed oil palm plantation in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of PNAS.

Concerns about the amount of forest cleared for plantations have plagued the palm oil industry for decades. In part, that led to the inception of the RSPO in 2004, which was formed to address the environmental footprint, as well as issues such as land rights and the treatment of workers, in the production of the ubiquitous vegetable oil.

But a lingering question has been whether RSPO certification standards diminish deforestation rates. Around 20 percent of the world’s production palm oil in 2015 was certified, and more than half of that comes from Indonesia, according to the RSPO website. To find some answers, Carlson and her colleagues’ analysis combined data on the boundaries of RSPO-certified and uncertified plantations with satellite imagery showing tree cover loss and fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo, from 2001 through 2015.

During that period, the team calculated that only about 21 square kilometers (8.1 square miles) of Indonesia’s forest was saved from being cut down thanks to RSPO certification. That’s just a bit more than a third the size of the island of Manhattan in the U.S.

“Twenty-one square kilometers is [next to] nothing, especially in the grand scheme of the deforestation that’s happened in Borneo as well as Sumatra,” Carlson said, “so there’s still a long way to go for the RSPO to actually have an effect on forest cover.”

Young oil palm trees in a nursery in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of PNAS.

They also found that, even though certified plantations were less likely to have fires or to have had forest cleared from carbon-rich peatlands, certification didn’t limit these issues in a statistically significant way.

Most of the certified plantations that the researchers looked at were developed — perhaps at the expense of forest — before the RSPO existed. And now, a lot of certified plantations don’t have much forest within their boundaries, so certification often only protects a negligible amount of forest.

Currently, RSPO standards prohibit clearing of primary and high-conservation value forest, but not all deforestation, which has led to criticism of the organization. But increasing how strict the standards are could also potentially exclude small-scale producers who might not have the means to bring their operations up to code, the authors write.

“[High] stringency means that whatever certified product that you purchase is probably going to be very ‘sustainable,’” Carlson said. “But if you make the standard more stringent and have a more ‘sustainable’ certified product, you’re likely to … exclude producers for whom it’s just too costly to become certified.”

Palm fruit bunches. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

That would leave them with even less incentive to protect standing forest, so the thinking goes. Still, Carlson said that the desire to get deforestation-free products into the hands of consumers exists, even if the current research shows that the RSPO doesn’t do that yet.

“I don’t think that our findings suggest that everybody should drop the RSPO and run to something else,” she added. “As it’s currently written, the RSPO standard is not … sufficient for zero-deforestation commitments because … there is forest loss.”


Carlson, K. M., Heilmayr, R., Gibbs, H. K., Noojipady, P., Burns, D. N., Morton, D. C., … Kremen, C. (2017). Effect of oil palm sustainability certification on deforestation and fire in Indonesia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Banner image of oil palm nursery in Indonesia courtesy of PNAS.

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Follow John Cannon on Twitter: @johnccannon

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