Peer-Reviewed Study Finds High Tropical Deforestation from Oil Palm Production

Researchers Say Deforestation Increases Climate Change and Biodiversity Risks

Published Jul 27, 2016

OAKLAND, Calif. (July 27, 2016)—A new study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, found high levels of oil palm-driven deforestation over a 25-year period in Southeast Asia and South America, but relatively low levels in Mesoamerica (Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean) and Africa. Three of the countries studied—Ecuador, Peru and Indonesia—had the greatest levels of observed deforestation within sampled sites, with more than half of the oil palm grown on land deforested during the study period.

The study by researchers at Duke University and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is the first to examine past deforestation and potential future deforestation and biodiversity impacts associated with oil palm plantations in 20 countries across the world. The study used satellite imagery to evaluate where oil palm plantations replaced forests from 1989 to 2013. In Southeast Asia, 45 percent of sampled oil palm plantations came from areas that were forests in 1989. For South America, the percentage was 31 percent. By contrast, in Mesoamerica and Africa, the study observed only 2 percent and 7 percent of oil palm plantations coming from areas that were forest in 1989. The analysis also found that all the countries with the highest levels of past deforestation had more than 30 percent unprotected forest within areas suitable for oil palm production, suggesting high potential for additional deforestation in the future.

The study’s key findings included the highest conversion rates of tropical forests to oil palm plantations in sampled areas in the following countries: Ecuador (60.8 percent), Indonesia (53.8 percent), Peru (53.1 percent), Malaysia (39.6 percent) and Brazil (39.4 percent).

“Clearing tropical forests, so the land can be used for oil palm plantations, contributes to climate change,” said Sharon Smith, study co-author and tropical forest and climate initiative campaign manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Cutting down forests can result in immediate increases in heat-trapping pollution, and oil palm plantations can sequester only a fraction of the carbon stored by natural forests. Increased deforestation will make it even harder to stabilize atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and prevent even higher increases in average global temperatures.”

In recent years palm oil production has increased to become the dominant vegetable oil globally. Palm oil and its derivatives are common ingredients in many processed foods and personal care products.  More than 80 percent of the world’s palm oil is currently produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, however the patterns of deforestation caused by oil palm plantation differ across the world.

“Almost all oil palm is grown in places that once were tropical forest,” said lead author Varsha Vijay of Duke University. “The questions are: Where are the active fronts of deforestation? Where could they expand in the future? How are they harming biodiversity?”

The study also examined the vulnerability of bird and mammal species that occupied these forests, many of which are at risk of extinction. Since different groups of species are at risk in different regions, conservation planning must be tailored to each unique ecosystem, according to the study authors.

“The palm oil industry’s legacy of deforestation has resulted in consumer pressure for companies to use deforestation-free sources of palm oil,” said Smith. “This research helps us understand where to focus on using government regulation and voluntary market interventions to shape oil palm plantation expansion in ways that prevent deforestation and protect our climate and biodiversity-rich ecosystems.”

For more information, read Varsha Vijay’s guest post on the UCS blog “The Equation.”