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Palm oil is a major driver of peatlands destruction in Indonesian Borneo, finds new study

27 April 2012

( Developers in Indonesian Borneo are increasingly converting carbon-dense peatlands for oil palm plantations, driving deforestation and boosting greenhouse gas emissions, reports a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research concludes that nearly all unprotected forests in Ketapang District in West Kalimantan will be gone by 2020 given current trends.

The study, which was led by Kim Carlson of Yale and Stanford University, is based on comprehensive socioeconomic surveys, high-resolution satellite imagery, and carbon mapping of the Ketapang, which is home to some of the most biodiverse forests on the planet including those of Gunung Palung National Park. 

Carlson and colleagues found that while developers focused on lowland forest areas for conversion between 1994-2001, the subsequently focused of peatlands. By 2008 nearly 70 percent of new plantations were established on peatlands, spurring substantial carbon dioxide emissions. The study projects that up to 90 percent of emissions from palm oil plantations will come from peatlands by 2020.

The findings are timely because the Malaysian and Indonesian palm oil industries are currently making a case that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's emissions estimates for palm oil production are too high. In concluding that palm oil-based biodiesel won't sufficiently reduce emissions relative to conventional fuel, the EPA assumed that 9 percent of Malaysian and 13 percent of Indonesian palm oil is produced on peatlands. The new study suggests that future oil palm development may be concentrated of peatlands, boosting the carbon footprint of palm oil, thereby undermining the palm oil industry's protests.

 The findings are also significant because Indonesia has pledged to protect peatlands under its national greenhouse gas emissions reduction commitment. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last year established a moratorium on new concessions in peatland areas, a move that comes on top of an earlier ban on conversion of peat areas deeper than three meters (ten feet).

“Preventing oil palm establishment on peatlands will be critical for any greenhouse gas emissions-reduction strategy,” said Carlson in a statement.

Overall the research found that half of oil palm plantations in Ketapang were established on peatlands through 2011.

To curb emissions from projected oil palm expansion, the authors argue that Ketapang would need to protect both logged and intact forests as well as prevent agricultural fires. Even so, conversion of 280,000 acres of a million acres of community land by 2020 is virtually inevitable, according to the research. The most likely case is that 35 percent of all community lands will be cleared for oil palm by 2020.

“Unfortunately forest and peatland protection does not automatically generate benefits for local communities,” said study co-author Lisa Curran, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University. “To become truly sustainable, oil palm companies must not only protect existing forests and carbon stocks, but should ensure that any land acquired from resident smallholder farmers and communities meets the criteria for free, prior and informed consent, and is equitably and transparently compensated.”

Carlson added that it was important the research incorporate the impacts of oil palm expansion and forest conversion on local communities.

“Early on we decided to include people in our assessment,” said Carlson. “Local residents and their lands are often forgotten in conversations about forests.”

Carlson et al (2011). Committed Carbon Emissions Deforestation, and Community Land Conversion from Oil Palm Plantation Expansion in West Kalimantan, Indonesia PNAS Early Edition for April 27, 2012.

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