When people talk about deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, palm oil often gets the blame. Demand for the versatile vegetable oil is high worldwide, and the two Asian countries together produce 87% of global supply.
Industrial-scale oil palm plantations have been expanding in the two countries in recent decades, as have plantations of pulpwood, mainly fast-growing acacia species.
But are old-growth forests actually razed to make way for oil palm and pulpwood plantations, or are the plantations installed on land that was cleared in the past for other purposes?
To answer that question, scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) used a series of satellite images to map the expansion of large industrial oil palm and pulpwood plantations. A collection that spanned two decades, the imagery exposed the loss of old-growth forest in Indonesian and Malaysian Borneo, where nearly half of the world’s industrial-scale oil palm plantations are found.
“Every year from 2000 through 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,” says David Gaveau, the study’s lead author. “This allowed us to determine the amount of forest being cleared by plantation companies.”
The result is a detailed picture of the expansion of plantations and the relationship between plantation expansion and forest loss.
Between 2000 and 2017, 6.04 million hectares of old-growth forest were lost in Borneo, a decline of 14%. About half of that area was ultimately converted to industrial plantations, and 92% of the forest that was converted was replaced with plantations within one year of being cleared, the study found.
In that same time period, industrial plantations increased overall by 170%, or 6.20 million hectares, of which 88% were for oil palm and 12% for pulpwood.
Indonesian Borneo, which accounts for 73% of the island’s territory, lost the most forest at 3.74 million hectares. It also gained the most plantations, a total of 4.35 million hectares. Smaller Malaysian Borneo lost 2.29 million hectares of forest and gained 1.85 million hectares of plantations.
Not all of the plantation development resulted in deforestation, however.
“Much plantation development, especially in Indonesia, has occurred in areas that were cleared before 2000, long before the plantations were installed,” says Douglas Sheil of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, one of the study’s authors. “So clearly, not all plantation developments caused conversion of forests to plantations.”
Both Indonesia and Malaysia have set sustainability standards in recent years – the Indonesian Standard for Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) Standard – and have taken other regulatory steps to curb the conversion of forests into plantations.
2011 saw Indonesia launch a nationwide moratorium on new oil palm and pulpwood plantations in primary forests, which has been extended several times since. And in 2016 the country implemented a moratorium on the conversion of its major carbon sink, peatlands.
The strengthening of legal support for community land claims in Indonesia may also make it harder for companies to acquire land for plantations, the study’s authors suggest.
The spread of plantations showed two peaks, one in 2009 and another in 2012. The researchers found that since 2012, there has been a steady decline in the expansion of plantations into old-growth forest.
The study revealed some details that could explain the dynamics behind the rise and fall of expansion rates.
Each of the peaks in expansion followed a year in which there was a peak in the price of crude palm oil. That price has been dropping since 2011, coinciding with the decrease in plantation expansion.
“The decrease in plantation expansion might be partly due to government efforts to regulate the expansion of plantations into forested areas,” Gaveau says. “But the very strong correlation between prices and expansion indicates that market forces are the main driving force affecting expansion.”
Forest loss also reflects factors other than plantation expansion, such as forest fires and the expansion of smallholder agriculture.
By 2017, the downward trend in plantation expansion, as well as the clearing of forests for plantations, reached a level that was the lowest since 2003. Low palm oil prices, improved fire prevention in Indonesia and wetter conditions all probably contributed to the low deforestation rates in 2017.
“Land and labor are also becoming harder to source and sustain in Borneo,” Gaveau says. “Furthermore, attention from non-governmental organizations and journalists, pressure from consumers and consumer nations, and shifting expansion into other regions of the world, such as Papua, Africa and South America, may all have constrained the expansion of plantations.”
The study shows that it is possible to use satellite imagery to determine how forest cover changes and plantations expand annually in specific concessions, Sheil says. Those data are being included in an interactive on-line atlas, due to be published next month, that will show the relationship between forest cover and concession expansion almost as it happens.
“These data can be used to hold companies accountable for their practices,” he says. “The challenge is that for a small fraction of the concessions, ownership is unclear.”
Ensuring accurate data about ownership and concession boundaries would make monitoring easier, he adds.
“Good companies,” Sheil says, “have nothing to lose and much to gain by ensuring transparency.”
Overall, the authors say, the study shows grounds for “cautious optimism” about progress in slowing deforestation in Borneo, but “much work remains to be done to ensure a future for Borneo’s forests.”