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.

deforestation by Wakx

Deforestation in Kelantan, Malaysia © Wakx

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.

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    KSI Sumatra High Conservation Value forest corridor in an Indonesian oil palm landscape © Calley Beamish

    KSI Sumatra High Conservation Value forest corridor in an Indonesian oil palm landscape © Calley Beamish

    Useful resources


    Palm oil and deforestation


    Carbon storage

    Soil and water

    Biodiversity loss on forest fragments within oil palm

    Fragmentation, edge effects and ecosystem services

    Other relevant papers