- A nearly two-decade study of land-cover change in Borneo has identified a positive correlation between the loss of forests and the expansion of plantations, primarily for oil palms.
- The findings undermine the long-held position of industry and government representatives that plantation expansion doesn’t contribute to deforestation and that it makes use of already cleared land.
- The study also highlighted a slowdown in rates of both deforestation and plantation expansion, which the researchers attributed to declining process of crude palm oil, more stringent regulations on forest clearing, and wetter weather in 2017.
- While the expansion of plantations hit a new low in 2017, activists say the possible illegal clearing of peat forests continues unabated in Indonesian Borneo, despite repeated calls to the government for action.
JAKARTA — A slowdown in both the expansion of industrial plantations and forest loss across Borneo in 2017 provides strong evidence of a correlation between the two.
The findings are laid out in a new study by scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), who used time-series satellite images to quantify forest loss, industrial plantation expansion and their overlap each year from 2000 to 2017 in Borneo. The island, home to half of the world’s oil palm plantations, is shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, but the study omitted the latter because of its negligible area of industrial plantations.
The area of forest lost in the region studied amounted to 2,500 square kilometers (970 square miles) in 2017 — a sharp decline from the 2016 peak of 6,100 square kilometers (2,360 square miles).
Also in 2017, industrial plantations expanded by 1,100 square kilometers (425 square miles) in Indonesian Borneo, also known as Kalimantan, and by 500 square kilometers (190 square miles) in Malaysian Borneo. These figures were markedly down from highs of 7,000 square kilometers (2,700 square miles) in Kalimantan in 2009, and 6,000 square kilometers (2,320 square miles) in Malaysian Borneo in 2012.
CIFOR’s estimate of the total area of old-growth forest lost in Kalimantan and Malaysian Borneo from 2000 to 2017 is 60,400 square kilometers (23,320 square miles). The figure is strikingly close to the 62,000 square kilometers (23,940 square miles) of total industrial plantations in the region as of 2017, 88 percent of which are dedicated to oil palms.
“Every year since 2000 until 2017, we measured total forest loss, how much plantation area was added, and how much forest was cleared and converted to plantations in the same year,” CIFOR researcher and study lead author David Gaveau said. “This allows us to determine how much forest is being cleared by plantation companies.”
The linked rise and fall in the rates of deforestation and plantation expansion point to a strong pattern, Gaveau said. “[M]any companies have stopped expanding the size of their plantations, and therefore they have been clearing and converting less and less forest since 2013 until 2017,” he said.
Douglas Sheil of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, one of the study’s co-authors, said it was clear that “not all plantation developments caused conversion of forests to plantations,” because some of the plantations were established on areas that had already been cleared.
This is an argument that various industry and government representatives have seized on to insist that the growth of plantations doesn’t contribute to deforestation, and to claim that expanding plantations is a reasonable use of already deforested land.
However, the study found a positive correlation between industrial plantation expansion and forest loss in Borneo.
About half of the old-growth forests that were cleared were ultimately converted to industrial plantations. The overwhelming majority of these, 92 percent, were converted within a year of being cleared, according to the study.
“Expansion of industrial plantations has directly contributed to forest loss throughout the study period as seen in the areas of forest cleared and converted within the same year,” the study says.
This correlation is particularly marked in Malaysian Borneo, where 58 percent of total deforestation since 2000 resulted in plantations within a year, compared to 38 percent in Kalimantan.
“Because a time lag of less than one year between forest loss and plantation establishment is short, a company must have razed the forest before planting,” Gaveau said.
Factors for slowdown
The study’s authors cited various factors for the recent slowdown in plantation expansion and deforestation, including a persistent decline in crude palm oil (CPO) prices.
“The strong correlation between CPO prices and plantation expansion indicates that declining CPO prices since 2011 are the likely major cause behind declining expansion of plantations and associated conversion to plantations deforestation,” Gaveau said.
He added that they could not rule out possible impacts from Indonesian initiatives to regulate expansion of plantations into forests. These include a moratorium on clearing peatlands, fire prevention measures, and no-deforestation commitments made by plantation companies and their clients.
The study also noted that 2017 was a non-El Niño year, resulting in wetter conditions with fewer fires — a major cause of forest loss in 2015 and 2016.
All these factors combined to contribute to the decline in forest loss in 2017.
But the researchers say there’s still much to be done to ensure the remaining forests in Borneo are protected from the expansion of industrial plantations.
“Fires and industrial plantations continue to cause deforestation, and we see no sign that plantation developments are seeking to avoid forest conversions,” the study says.
Safrudin Mahendra, executive director of the NGO Save Our Borneo (SOB), welcomed the findings of slowing deforestation and plantation expansion rates, but said they shouldn’t be seen as a sign that plantation companies were committed to reining in their operations.
“It’s not because the companies are getting less ambitious about clearing forests,” he said. “It’s because the available land in Borneo is getting scarcer.”
Gaveau said scarcity of land and workers, as well as investments shifting to other regions, including Indonesia’s easternmost province of Papua, might also have played a role in the slowing of plantation expansion in Borneo.
However, he discounted a theory that companies didn’t need to clear as much land in 2017 after devastating fires in 2015 razed huge swaths of primary and peat forest. He said there was no correlation between the two, and the slowdown in plantation expansion began after 2012, well before the 2015 fires.
Gaveau added that while the land cleared by those fires might potentially be converted into plantations in the future, the research hadn’t found an increase in plantation expansion on such already-cleared lands in 2016 and in 2017. “Instead, we continue to find a steady downward trend in 2016 and in 2017,” he said.
A recent case of peat forest being cleared for a palm oil plantation has been reported by activists in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province.
Safrudin from the SOB said locals had complained of fires in a peat swamp in the district of West Kotawaringin last year. Activists surveying the site last October reported seeing heavy equipment being used to clear the area. They reported their findings to the authorities, including the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, the presidentially appointed Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), and the provincial government and police department.
Only the BRG responded, Safrudin said. The agency sent investigators to the field with the SOB activists, where they found an extensive network of canals had been dug to drain the peat swamp.
The BRG officials also found an orangutan nest in the area, which the province’s conservation agency has identified as a habitat for the critically endangered Borneo orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). Upon further checking, the BRG and the activists found no evidence that the Ministry of Environment and Forestry had issued a permit allowing the forest in question to be converted for a plantation.
Safrudin said he suspected that the company behind the clearing had employed local farmers to do the grunt work. “Once the peat clearing was discovered, the company could easily use that to apply for a forest conversion permit,” he said. “They could argue that the forest had already been cleared by locals and thus could be converted.” (Safrudin declined to name the company, saying he hadn’t been able to verify the allegation.)
He said the BRG had asked the Ministry of Environment and Forestry in December to follow up on the findings, but there’s been no response to date.
Banner image: A baby orangutan. Orangutans are listed as Critically Endangered and on the brink of extinction as their habitats are destroyed by expansion of industrial plantations in Borneo. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.