Tropical forests provide habitat for half of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, including some of the most critically endangered species. They support vital ecosystem services and the livelihoods of around one billion people worldwide. Forest and peatland ecosystems play an essential role in the carbon cycle – with as much as 21% of global emissions resulting from tropical deforestation and forest degradation, addressing forest loss presents a significant climate change mitigation opportunity.
Palm oil and deforestation
The clearing of forest to establish plantations is one of the most significant environmental risks of palm oil production:
- Plantation expansion has often occurred at the expense of tropical forests and peatlands; between 1990 and 2005 in Malaysia and Indonesia, over half of expansion occurred on previously forested land.
- The conversion of forest to plantations has significant negative impacts for biodiversity and the provision of ecosystem services, such as water, carbon storage, climate regulation, and nutrient cycling.
- The area of land under oil palm development is growing. Global plantation area has tripled in the last ten years and is expected to reach 18 million hectares by 2020 in Indonesia alone.
- Clearing land for the establishment of oil palm plantations fragments forest landscapes, with remaining forest patches supporting fewer and diminishing numbers of species than areas of the same size of continuous forest. Forest fragments are susceptible to ‘edge effects’, where forest quality continues to deteriorate over time.
- In addition to land use conversion for plantations, the establishment of infrastructure – including mills, roads, and workers’ housing – can also result in the clearing of natural forest.
- Furthermore, the expansion of palm oil operations can displace other activities, resulting in increased pressure on forests and deforestation elsewhere.
Breaking the link between palm oil and deforestation
There are a growing number of public and private sector commitments and initiatives to reduce deforestation driven by oil palm development, including several commitments to achieving ‘zero deforestation’ supply chains.
- Oil palm growers can incorporate a number of approaches into land acquisition and development to ensure their operations are not driving deforestation, including by undertaking rigorous social and environmental impact assessments and by prioritising the use of degraded land.
- Identifying and protecting areas of High Conservation Value (HCV) is one way to ensure that the expansion of plantations does not occur at the expense of priority conservation areas, such as primary forest ecosystems or forests with important levels of biodiversity.
- Identifying, maintaining and enhancing areas with one or more HCVs are requirements of the RSPO. This requires the assessment and subsequent monitoring and management of HCV areas to ensure long term conservation benefits.
- To address concerns that the HCV approach may allow for the conversion of non-primary or non-HCV forest areas, there have been further developments in defining forests and identifying land suitable for plantation development based on the classification of ‘High Carbon Stock’ (HCS) areas. Two methodologies for identifying HCS areas have developed concurrently: the HCS Approach and the HCS Study.
- The HCS Approach, developed originally by GAR, Greenpeace and The Forest Trust (TFT), is designed to protect and restore viable natural forest areas, while ensuring traditional land use rights and livelihoods are secured. The approach identifies classes of forest area to determine areas of natural forest and degraded land. This approach incorporates FPIC requirements and participatory mapping, as well as conservation science principles (including HCV), to inform conservation planning.
- The HCS Study has been launched by a group of growers, traders and stakeholders as part of their commitment to the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto (SPOM). The study aims to define what constitutes HCS forest according to potential emissions and thresholds for HCS, as well as additional socio-economic and environmental factors. The study examines four key areas: biomass; soil carbon; remote sensing; and socio-economics.
- SNV’s Siting Tool: Zoning areas suitable for agricultural production
- WRI’s Suitability Mapper
- WRI report ‘How to Identify Degraded Land for Sustainable Palm Oil in Indonesia’: Methodology for rapid identification of degraded land using both desktop analysis and field assessments
- Agropalma case study ‘Forest Patrol Programme: Conservation of forest integrity and biodiversity’
- NCD’s Soft Commodity Forest Risk Assessment Tool
- Indonesian Government moratorium on deforestation
- An example of a ‘No Deforestation’ policy from Wilmar
Palm oil and deforestation
- Four Decades of Forest Persistence, Clearance and Logging on Borneo (2014)
- Is oil palm agriculture really destroying tropical biodiversity? (2008)
- Remotely sensed evidence of tropical peatland conversion to oil palm (2011)
- The Impacts of Oil Palm on Recent Deforestation and Biodiversity Loss (2016)
- How will oil palm expansion affect biodiversity? (2008)
- Selective-logging and oil palm : multitaxon impacts , biodiversity indicators , and trade-offs for conservation planning (2014)
- Systematic review of effects on biodiversity from oil palm production (2014)
- Carbon outcomes of major land‐cover transitions in SE Asia: great uncertainties and REDD+ policy implications (2012)
- Change in carbon stocks arising from land-use conversion to oil palm plantations: A science-for-policy paper for the Oil palm Research-Policy Partnership Network (2014)
- Co-benefits for biodiversity and carbon in land planning decisions within oil palm landscapes:A science-for-policy paper for the Oil palm Research-Policy Partnership Network (2015)
- Estimation of the impact of oil palm plantation establishment on greenhouse gas balance (2008)
Soil and water
- Soil Biology & Biochemistry Deforestation for oil palm alters the fundamental balance of the soil N cycle (2016)
Biodiversity loss on forest fragments within oil palm
- Impacts of rain forest fragmentation on butterflies in northern Borneo: species richness, turnover and the value of small fragments (2006)
- Terrestrial Mammal Species Richness and Composition in Three Small Forest Patches within an Oil Palm Landscape in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo (2014)
- Tropical forest fragments contribute to species richness in adjacent oil palm plantations (2014)
- Wildlife-friendly oil palm plantations fail to protect biodiversity effectively (2010)
Fragmentation, edge effects and ecosystem services
- Ecosystem Decay of Amazonian Forest Fragments : a 22-Year Investigation (2002)
- Pervasive impact of large-scale edge effects on a beetle community (2008)
- The fate of Amazonian forest fragments: A 32-year investigation (2011)
Other relevant papers
- Deforestation rates in insular Southeast Asia between 2000 and 2010 (2011)
- Primary forests are irreplaceable for sustaining tropical biodiversity (2011)
- Southeast Asian biodiversity: an impending disaster (2004)
- Spatial patterns of carbon, biodiversity, deforestation threat, and REDD+ projects in Indonesia (2015)
- Where and How Are Roads Endangering Mammals in Southeast Asia’s Forests? (2014)