Palm Plantation

A new report published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the palm oil industry is causing worse damage than originally suspected.

The report, titled “Committed carbon emissions, deforestation, and community land conversion from oil palm plantation expansion in West Kalimantan, Indonesia,” found that as much as two-thirds of all forested land located outside protected areas in Borneo, Indonesia are now actually being leased to palm oil companies, and at this rate, by 2020 one-third of the land will be converted to palm plantations shrinking the regional forest — home to endangered species like the organgutan — and peatland to just 4 percent.

Among the study’s findings,  the researchers discovered that 50 percent of palm oil plantations were developed on peatlands just in the last year. The problem with peat soils is that when they are drained for cultivation, they release harmful carbon dioxide into the environment. The researchers estimate that 90 percent of palm oil greenhouse gas emissions will originate in peatlands by 2020 if the unrestricted development of those areas continues. Study co-author and doctoral candidate at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Kimberly Carlson, said,”Preventing oil palm establishment on peatlands will be critical for any greenhouse gas emissions-reduction strategy.”

The rate of destruction is so great throughout Indonesia that even if future palm oil development is restricted from forests and peatlands, the greenhouse gas emissions will only decline by 3 to 4 percent. What’s needed is not just a moratorium on palm oil plantations in forest and peatlands, but also the protection of secondary and logged forests and peatlands. With the implementation of conservation measures, the researchers suggest a 21 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the region by 2020.

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Image: Adam Jones, Ph.D.