Oil Palm Plantation: the Major Cause of Deforestation?

Oil Palm Plantation: the Major Cause of Deforestation?

Indonesia - 20 January, 2014

Oil palm plantation is often blamed as the major cause of forest loss and deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. Deforestation, as well as other forms of land use change resulting from the development of new plantations, is also considered to be a large source of GHG emissions. These issues were addressed in two papers titled “Oil palm and land use change in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea” and “Historical CO2 emissions from land use and land use change from the oil palm industry in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea” published in November 2013 by the Working Group of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

The papers raise several issues which may challenge the assumption that the conversion of primary forest to palm oil plantation is high. They found that land cover change of the primary forest into oil palm plantation is actually less than 5% in the three countries. Only 0.1% of oil palm plantations were sourced from undisturbed upland forest, while undisturbed swamp forest contribute 4%. The others were established on land previously covered with secondary forests, shrub lands, grasslands, plantations and agroforestry, annual crops, mines, settlements, and even bare soil landscape

It means that most of oil palm plantations use degraded land and degraded forest resulted from former unsustainable practice. This challenges the view that oil palm industry is the destroyer of the primary forests. The conversion of peatland into oil palm plantation represents about 10% of total peatland in Indonesia, which is much less compared to Malaysia that has converted almost 50% of its total peat land area.

Indonesia, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea are countries in the world which have the potential to develop oil palm industry. Indonesia and Malaysia have more than 20 million ha of oil palm plantations and comprise more than 80% of oil palm producers in the world, whereas Papua New Guinea has a potential for oil palm plantation expansion.

The land use change study on the expansion of palm oil industry in the tree countries was documented using Landsat images. The images were then visually interpreted to create a region-wide map of 22 different land cover types spanning three temporal periods: 1990-2000, 2001-2005, and 2006-2010.

Tropenbos International Indonesia, represented by Programme Director Petrus Gunarso and GIS specialist Manjela Eko Hartoyo along with other representatives from corporations, academics and independent consultants teamed up for the papers which is aimed to support RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil). The papers were contributed to provide recommendations to the RSPO Executive Board.

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