Palm oil & forest conversion
Clear-felled for oil palm estatesThe oil palm tree only grows in tropical areas. Vast plantations have been established in such regions – on land that was often previously covered in high conservation value tropical forests. Such forests not only have the most species of trees per hectare, but a huge amount of other biodiversity as well.
Of even more concern is the fact that demand for palm oil is predicted to increase – and most of the remaining suitable areas for plantations are forests.
Indonesia and Malaysia: the most affected countriesMost of the world's oil palm trees are grown on a few islands in Malaysia and Indonesia – islands with the most biodiverse tropical forests found on Earth, and where there is a direct relationship between the growth of oil palm estates and deforestation.
Princeton University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology estimate that between 1990 and 2005, 55-60% of oil palm expansion in Malaysia and Indonesia occurred at the expense of virgin forests.
A report published in 2007 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) acknowledges that oil palm plantations are now the leading cause of rainforest destruction in these two countries.
Bad news for speciesLarge-scale conversion of tropical forests to oil palm plantations has a devastating impact on a huge number of plant and animal species.
Other impactsDeforestation can also cause soil erosion and contribute to air pollution and climate change. The practice of draining and converting peatland forests is especially damaging for the climate, as these “carbon sinks” store more carbon per unit area than any other ecosystem in the world.
Indonesia & Malaysia
Nowhere is the problem of forest conversion for oil palm plantations more acute than in Indonesia.
While some oil palm plantations have been established in former rubber plantations (whose production is now less valuable than in the past), plantation concessions in the 1990s were mostly granted in primary forests.
This is despite the fact that 20 million hectares of abandoned agricultural land is appropriate for the establishment of oil palm plantations in the country.
Planters feel that it is more expensive to plant in grasslands or in degraded areas because they will have to add so much more chemical fertilizer. The cost of clearing forests is subsidised from the sale of timber from concession areas.
Oil palm plantations have even been created illegally within a number of different protected areas.
Peat forests: a big casualty
Being relatively easy to clear, peat forest areas are one of the main areas of conversion. They were the sites of many of the forest fires in Indonesia in the late 1990s. Peat forests are even less suitable for conversion to plantations than any other tropical forests.
Peat forests have very high water tables so often palm oil plantings have to be made on elevated pedestals that prevent the roots from being in standing water. As a consequence, many trees fall over for lack of support. If an entire peat forest area is cleared, then the area can dry out so that palm oil production is more successful.
Malaysia: rubber plantations classified as "forest"
The Malaysian government has successfully lobbied for rubber plantations to be classified as "forest" by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Such areas are classified as part of the "permanent forest estate," which obfuscates the amount of natural, biodiverse forest that is actually left in the country. There is a chance that the same case might be made for oil palm plantations in the future.
Once land is classed as "forest," developers can continue to convert more biodiverse natural forests to monocrop plantations without it ever showing up in any statistical sources. This would have a major impact on biodiversity wherever such crops as oil palm trees are planted.
Source: Clay (2004) "World Agriculture & Environment"