“Of the 15-16 percent of deforestation in Kalimantan associated with rapid conversion to industrial plantations, 11-13 percent is attributed to oil palm. What this shows is that the majority of oil palm plantations were developed on degraded lands, meaning forests converted to ferns, grasslands and scrubs by drought and recurrent burning, mainly during El Nino years,” Gaveau said in a presentation at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation.
That so many oil palm plantations in Kalimantan were developed on fire-induced deforested land offers much nuance in the debate over whether oil palm is the main driver of deforestation in the region.
“People have been arguing that plantations should be developed on degraded lands, and what we found – with caveats – is that in Kalimantan in Indonesia that is largely what has been happening,” Sheil said. In Malaysia, on the other hand, the study suggests that the plantation industry was the principle driver of the loss of forest because of the speedy rate of conversion.
Seen from that perspective, Indonesia seems to have done much better than has been widely assumed.
But, the scientists found something changed in 2005.
“Since 2005, Kalimantan experienced a boom in plantation development. Over half of the existing plantations were added since then, and there has been a steep increase in the rapid conversion of forests to plantations, Kalimantan becoming the principle contributor of rapid net forest conversion by area. Despite planting on degraded lands, deforestation remains very high in Indonesia and Malaysia, and does not appear to be slowing,” Gaveau said.
“More needs to be done to protect Borneo’s forests,” he added.
Underscoring the complexity of the deforestation process is essential, especially amid increasing calls for boycotts of palm oil products.
“Oil palm expansion has accelerated over time, and expands in different local contexts. As such, this expansion takes over different land uses ranging from forests, agroforestry systems and degraded lands. This study confirms these diverse land use dynamics linked to oil palm expansion,” said Pablo Pacheco, principal scientist at CIFOR and co-author of the study.
It is no longer possible to generalize about oil palm trajectories and likely outcomes.
“Oil palm is not always a bad thing,” Sheil said. “It generates a sizeable amount of revenue for people and is very efficient in generating incomes from limited land. I worry that we are stigmatizing an entire crop – but it’s not the crop that is the problem but where we grow it.”
Study co-author Erik Meijaard of the Borneo Futures Project said facts such as those provided by the study are much needed in the debate over extractive industries.
“Oil palm is so polarized between camps that love it or hate it with a vengeance. There is much that has not been quantified with regard to oil palm development and causal relationships,” he said.