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Putting palm oil in its place

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 17 Dec 2012 12:15 GMT
Author: Fred Stolle, Kemen Austin and Caity Peterson
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 By Fred Stolle, Kemen Austin and Caity Peterson

What does one do with an industry that is highly profitable and promising for rural development, yet at the same time climatically culpable due to its association with deforestation?

Put it where it belongs, says the World Resources Institute (WRI). Under Project POTICO, WRI is working to break the link between deforestation and palm oil production by promoting the expansion of new oil palm plantation in non-forested areas.

Indonesia lays claim to 94.5 million hectares of forest cover, the third largest expanse of humid tropical forest in the world. It’s also the world’s largest producer of palm oil, boasting 44 percent of the global supply.

The forests supply fuel, fodder, medicine and food to Indonesians, protect their watersheds, and store vast amounts of carbon dioxide to help mitigate climate change. The oil palm industry, on the other hand, employs upwards of 3.7 million people and contributes 6 to 7 percent  to Indonesia’s GDP.

It’s inevitable that these two titans should eventually clash, and the result consistently has forests on the losing end. Indonesia experiences one of the highest annual deforestation rates in the world:  700,000 hectares per year are lost along with their potential for carbon sequestration, second only to the southeastern Brazilian Amazon. Many[i] of the existing 8 million hectares of plantations were established by clear-cutting native rainforest, a worrisome trend if the Indonesian government achieves its goal of doubling palm oil production by 2020.


Project POTICO proposes a bold yet sensible approach: to divert expanding oil palm plantations away from forests and put them instead on already degraded land - that is, land that no longer supports high carbon stocks or high biodiversity but is still suitable for palm oil production.

Why not recycle already cleared land to establish working oil palm plantations, rather than cutting new swaths into the rainforest and releasing more carbon into the atmosphere? Project POTICO’s analysis shows that if Indonesia diverted future plantations onto its degraded lands —while respecting local rights and interests — it could expand oil palm production to meet global demand and create jobs while avoiding deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and social conflict over land rights.

Project POTICO plans to work with Indonesian officials, non-governmental organizations, and businesses to convert existing plantation permits slated for forested land into permits for degraded land, and to push for all future plantation permits to be allocated on degraded land from the get-go. In all, up to 860,000 hectares of oil palm plantations couldl potentially be established on non-forested land.


One of the key challenges facing the WRI team is the location, mapping and evaluation of suitable lands considered to be “degraded”, a term for which there is no solid definition.

Some “degraded” lands may still have forest cover or shelter remnants of biodiversity. Others are not zoned for agricultural use, a complex political problem that could take years to rectify. What’s more, suitable degraded land is not necessarily sustainable degraded land; sometimes it lacks the infrastructure to make a palm operation viable or has already been laid claim to by local communities, precluding its development for other purposes.

Given these complications, for companies and government officials to begin diverting oil palm expansion they first need access to reliable information about where to find suitable degraded land. WRI has already created publicly available, interactive maps of potentially suitable degraded land for the Indonesian half of Borneo, using a methodology that is ready to be scaled out to the entire Indonesian archipelago. These maps can be used to prioritize areas for field assessments to reject or confirm a site’s suitability for oil palm production.

Indonesia is one of the few emerging economies in the world to have made substantial commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: a 26 percent reduction from “business as usual” by 2020 or a 41 percent reduction with international assistance. Sustainable palm oil gives Indonesia the chance to demonstrate that economic development and environmental responsibility can, in fact, go hand in hand and even be synergistic.

POTICO’s creative relocation schemes and innovative partnerships between businesses, NGOs and the government may be the perfect avenues for Indonesia to arrive at its climate goals in an economically, socially, and environmentally conscientious way.

Caity Peterson is a visiting researcher and science writer based at the Center for International Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia. Fred Stolle is the program manager for the World Resources Institute’s Forest Landscapes Objective, working on forest governance, forest changes, and their impacts on climate. Kemen Austin is a research associate  in the People and Ecosystems Program at the World Resources Institute.

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