Indonesia and Malaysia have long occupied the spotlight for oil palm plantations and their adverse consequences, including deforestation, habitat loss, climate change, and struggles with indigenous and local people. But other Southeast Asian countries are fast joining the two oil palm giants, with Myanmar following their development blueprint by allocating forestland for new plantations: A recent study published in Scientific Reports finds that nearly 60 percent of concessions for oil palm plantations in southern Myanmar consist of forests or non-rubber tree crops.
“Many of these concession areas are in proposed national parks,” says Keiko Nomura, lead author of the study and a Ph.D. student at the University of Edinburgh. “The concessions were allocated without taking into consideration the environmental or social impacts.”
The study focuses on Myanmar’s southern states, since this is where most plantations are currently concentrated.
In 1999, the military-led government set a target of planting 280,000 hectares (692,000 acres) by 2030; some 63,000 hectares (156,000 acres), or nearly a quarter of that total, overlaps with forest reserves. Since then, the government has handed out 401,814 hectares (nearly a million acres), an area larger than Rhode Island, to 44 companies. And due to climate change, by 2050 the country is expected to be more suitable for oil palm cultivation than Indonesia, currently the world’s biggest producer.
The researchers found that oil palm plantations with mature trees cover about 75,000 hectares (185,000 acres) of the Tanintharyi region. Within the concessions, images analyzed for the study also revealed the presence of rubber plantations as well as landscape designated as “other trees” (which in the study includes both forests and other tree crops, such as betel and cashew), shrub, bare land, and water bodies. While oil palm covers only 15 percent of concession areas in all the districts, “other trees” occupy 60 percent of the granted land.
“The companies [that own the concessions] can legally clear the remaining forests, including some that are located in potentially intact forests and high biodiversity areas and carbon-value forests,” Nomura says. “Tanintharyi National Park, in particular, has about 1,000 hectares [2,500 acres] planted with oil palm and rubber. It is crucial to examine the suitability of remaining concession areas as oil palm
Tanintharyi, which has not yet been fully designated a protected area, has a rich above-ground carbon stock. Clearing the concessions within the proposed park would release approximately 150 million tons, or teragrams, of carbon dioxide equivalent (Tg CO2e), according to the paper.
To examine the actual extent of planted and unplanted areas accurately, the researchers used Google Earth Engine to obtain image collections over several months. They then used thousands of reference data points to calculate the oil palm area and other land cover through Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 satellite data for 2018 and 2019. They later refined the images for high accuracy using software and algorithms to create cloud-free image composites.
With this data, the researchers found discrepancies between the actual oil palm plantations and what the plantation companies have reported to the government when they investigated the concessions and boundaries in the Tanintharyi region. Moreover, unplanted areas within oil palm concessions in Myanmar were not always clear.
Concessions and unplanted areas
Farmers originally introduced oil palm to Myanmar in the 1920s, but plantations didn’t take off for several decades. It was only in the 1970s that they started being developed in the states of Tanintharyi, Mon, Kachin and Rakhine. In 1999, the palm oil business became a major focus of the government. A military regime at the time, the government handpicked companies and tasked them with cultivation. The idea was to meet domestic demand, with an eye on exports too.
Since then, Myanmar has seen large-scale development of plantations in several districts, concentrated in the southernmost region of the country, Tanintharyi, where conditions are considered particularly favorable.
For now, though, plantation development on these concessions has been limited by social and environmental factors. Conflicts over land ownership and lack of access to some areas persist as a result of security issues, including clashes between rival insurgent groups. In addition, some of the concessions may be unsuitable for oil palm, and some of the companies involved may lack the knowledge and resources necessary to plant, according to the study. It found that approximately 30 percent of all oil palms are planted in areas outside the concessions, possibly due to uncertain or changing boundaries. This includes 1,000 hectares inside Tanintharyi National Park, or about 4 percent of the combined area of the two national parks that overlap with concessions.
But there’s been a consistent increase over time in the area of land planted with oil palms, and the parallels with Indonesia and Malaysia are stark. Nomura and her team cite research showing that in Indonesia, oil palm concessions overlapped with extensive forest land. They also revealed that nearly half of the oil palm in Southeast Asia is cultivated on land that was forest until just 30 years ago. As the popularity of palm oil grows across the world due to low prices and its increased use in biofuels, scientists worry that its impact on climate, forests and local communities will only accelerate. They warn that Myanmar’s intact forests today face a similar plight as those of Indonesia and Malaysia in the last couple of decades.
And even if demand for palm oil cools, amid policies that recognize its environmental impact, that won’t necessarily spare the forested concessions in Tanintharyi, the researchers say. The study shows that rubber remains the dominant crop in the region, occupying considerable chunks of oil palm concessions. It’s still the region’s preferred crop, most likely due to an increase in rubber prices over the last two decades. The scientists warn that even if the demand for palm oil declines, companies may plant rubber in the concession areas, leading to extensive deforestation either way. Between 2001 and 2010 alone, an estimated 164,200 hectares (405,750 acres) of land was deforested in Tanintharyi.
There’s tremendous conservation value in repealing the concessions that threaten Myanmar’s forests, the researchers say. Such a move could markedly reduce future carbon emissions, as well as safeguard the nation’s endemic species, including the Indochinese tiger (Panthera tigris corbetti), once widespread across Southeast Asia but now believed to be restricted to Myanmar and Thailand.
Besides wildlife, the unplanted areas are often critical for the livelihoods of local communities. And these communities must be involved before decisions are taken about how the forests are used, says Kevin Woods, a senior policy analyst at Forest Trends and professor at the Department of Geography and Environment at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
The 60 percent of “other trees” recorded in the concession areas “means that a significant percentage of the tree cover recorded could in fact be agricultural plantations managed by local populations, as well as shifting cultivation practices,” says Woods, who was not involved in the study. “Without reconciling these local land rights and uses, any conservation program targeting these oil palm concessions would be a breach of international best practices and policies, further undermining peace and security, and ultimately fail as a result.”
“It’s ultimately up to the country,” Nomura says. “But now is a good time and opportunity to reconsider such concessions, especially as the government has changed” since the concessions were handed out, she adds, referring to Myanmar’s transition to a democratic government in 2011.
“It would make sense to consider a new strategy for agricultural development under the current and future economic and market conditions.”
Nomura, K., Mitchard, E. T. A., Patenaude, G., Bastide, J., Oswald, P., & Nwe, T. (2019). Oil palm concessions in southern Myanmar consist mostly of unconverted forest. Scientific Reports, 9(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-019-48443-3