Palm Oil Seen Clearing Tropical Forest in Borneo in Yale Study

Expanding palm-oil production is driving rain-forest destruction in the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo, also known as Kalimantan, according to a study by researchers at Stanford and Yale universities.

The area converted to palm oil increased 35-fold between 1990 and 2010, with 90 percent of the land covered with forest prior to conversion, according to the study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Indonesia’s palm oil and palm-kernel oil production generated about $11.1 billion in 2010, the researchers wrote. At the same time, the country was one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases, mostly because of land-based carbon emissions including deforestation, they said.

“Despite contentious debate over the types and uses of lands slated for oil palm plantations, the sector has grown rapidly over the past 20 years,” Lisa Curran, a professor of anthropology at Stanford who contributed to the study, was cited as saying in an online press release.

Of the area converted into palm oil plantations between 1990 and 2010, 47 percent was tropical forest, 22 percent logged forest and 21 percent agroforests, according to the study.

Palm-oil plantations, which covered 903 square kilometers (349 square miles) of the island in 1990, expanded by 746 square kilometers a year to cover 8,360 square kilometers in 2000, according to the researchers, who used satellite data to map and classify lands cleared for oil palm, and estimate greenhouse-gas emissions.

Clearing rates more than tripled to 2,328 square kilometers a year between 2000 and 2010, with oil-palm plantations covering 31,640 square kilometers at the end of the period, the study showed.

Potential Development

After the 20-year expansion, 79 percent of plantation leases remained unplanted in 2010, the study showed. Full lease development would convert 93,844 square kilometers to oil palm, including 41 percent intact forest, and oil palm would then cover 34 percent of Kalimantan’s lowlands outside protected areas, the researchers wrote.

Sustainably producing palm oil will require re-evaluating awarded oil-palm plantation leases located on forested land, according to the researchers.

“Plantation expansion in Kalimantan alone is projected to contribute 18 percent to 22 percent of Indonesia’s 2020 C02-equivalent emissions,” the researchers wrote.

Plantation expansion is projected to release more than 558 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2020, more than all of Canada’s fossil fuel emissions, according to Stanford.

“These plantation leases are an unprecedented grand-scale experiment replacing forests with exotic palm mono cultures,” Curran was cited as saying. “We may see tipping points in forest conversion where critical biophysical functions are disrupted, leaving the region increasingly vulnerable to droughts, fires and floods.”

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