But even as the environmental case against it grows stronger, the palm-oil business is booming as never before. “Oil palm is such a lucrative crop that there is almost no way to stop it,” says William Laurance, a forest-conservation scientist at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia. Indonesia, the world’s largest grower of oil palms, is expected to double production by 2030. And on 28 June, the Malaysian palm-oil company Felda Global Ventures (FGV) earned US$3.2 billion in the second-largest initial public offering (IPO) this year after Facebook, which will enable the company to bring thousands of extra hectares into production.
Looking beyond Malaysia
Sabri Ahmad, group president of FGV, told reporters recently that the company has planned to expand its operations eightfold in eight years. To do so, it will have to look beyond Malaysia to countries such as Cambodia and Indonesia. Although Malaysia is now the world’s second-largest producer of palm oil, it is running out of viable land for new oil-palm plantations, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Such expansion is driven by the steadily rising demand for palm oil, mainly from the food sector, which uses it in a vast array of products, including margarine and biscuits. But the emerging biodiesel market is also thirsty for the oil.
In principle, biodiesel made from palm oil could be environmentally-friendly, because the carbon dioxide released when it is burned is roughly the same as that absorbed as the plant grows. But vast swathes of forest have been cut down to make way for the crop, often in carbon-rich peatlands, where tree burning and soil degradation release extra stores of the global-warming gas. A recent life-cycle assessment suggested that it could take up to 220 years for a plantation to become carbon neutral
In January, after the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that palm-oil fuels emitted only 11–17% less greenhouse gas than diesel over their entire life cycle, it suggested that the oil should not be classified as a renewable fuel. Although a public consultation on the matter concluded in April, the EPA has not set a date to issue its final ruling. But the European Union (EU) continues to encourage the use of fuels based on palm oil. The EU has a binding target to raise the share of biofuels used in road transport to 10% by 2020, and most of that is expected to be met by blending biofuels such as palm oil with conventional fuels.
Research published in April also shows that oil-palm plantations are increasingly responsible for deforestation in Indonesia. In Ketapang, an area in which the industry has been active, oil-palm planting directly caused 27% of the region’s deforestation in 2007–08. By 2020, around 40% of Ketapang will be given over to palm oil, up from 6% in 2007–08.
Palm oil would be much more sustainable if it were managed responsibly, says Nigel Sizer, director of the Global Forest Initiative at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank based in Washington DC. “It is possible to have carbon-neutral plantations if they are grown on already heavily logged and degraded land,” he says.
Krystof Obidzinski, a forest-governance researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, Indonesia, agrees that there is plenty of non-forested or degraded land that could be used for plantations, but says that nations and companies need incentives to use it. Forested land is more attractive because companies can get extra income from the timber, and it is also less likely to be inhabited by large numbers of locals who can claim land rights and financial compensation, says Obidzinski.
Consumer pressure could encourage companies to change their practices. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an international non-profit association based in Zurich, Switzerland, that brings together conservation groups and palm-oil firms including FGV, says that it will not certify oil grown on land that was deforested to farm the crop. But many are skeptical that the RSPO, which was established in 2004, can effectively police the industry’s rapid growth. “I am not confident at all that this is being done properly,” says Joshua Linder, a biological anthropologist at the James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He and others are keenly watching how the RSPO handles a flood of complaints filed this spring against a planned 70,000-hectare oil-palm plantation in Cameroon, for example, in what is seen as a test case of the body’s power to hold companies to account.
In a statement, the RSPO told Nature that it was prepared to act in serious cases of environmental negligence, when it “may ultimately require a member to take specific actions or face cancellation of its RSPO membership”.
But in the face of what some call “a green tidal wave” of oil-palm expansion, some fear that such sanctions will not be enough.
SG Sustainable Oils Cameroon, a subsidiary of American agribusiness corporation Herakles Farms, in collaboration with the American non-profit All for Africa, are planning a 70,000- hectare oil palm plantation in southwestern Cameroon.
Some scientists, having examined this project in detail, question many of the claims and practices of the project proponents, especially their insistence that the “plantations will follow the highest environmental and social standards, complying fully with Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil Principles & Criteria.”
- They believe that this plantation violates important RSPO rules and standards, and will have serious negative impacts on the biodiversity and people of southwestern Cameroon. Specifically, they assert that:
- The area proposed for the plantation, the Cross-Sanaga forest, is of exceptional ecological richness and diversity . This region, which occurs along the Cameroon-Nigeria border, has been recognized as a global center of biodiversity by the World Wide Fund for Nature and Conservation International . Many groups of diverse and endemic species, such as primates, amphibians, birds, butterflies, and vascular plants , would be imperiled by the vast plantation project.
- The proposed plantation is located within an ecologically vital area—one of the largest surviving tracts of lowland forest in the Gulf of Guinea. Management plans for Korup National Park and Nta Ali Reserve have indicated that many animals, such as the threatened African elephant and chimpanzee and the endangered drill, actively use the proposed plantation area to forage and move among these protected areas.
- The project proponents have allegedly abused or violated Cameroon law by clearing forest and developing oil palm nurseries between January and June 2011, prior to submitting an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment to the Cameroon Government or obtaining a required Certificate of Environmental Conformity.
- The proponents have clearly violated the guidelines of the RSPO, of which they are active members. They failed to submit a High Conservation Value Forest assessment to the RSPO prior to commencing clearing forest between January and June 2011, as evidenced by ground and aerial images taken of the nursery sites.
- The proponents have seriously misrepresented the state of the forests within their proposed plantation area and have misled the public into believing it unsuitable for most wildlife species. They claim that the “vast majority of the concession is secondary and degraded forest” and that the concession area was selected because it was located on “land that had been previously logged
- The proposed plantation, which foresees hiring 7000-8000 workers, will lead to substantial immigration into the plantation area. This will significantly increase demands for bushmeat, leading to increased hunting pressure in the surrounding protected areas.
- The proponents’ Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, including their analysis of High Conservation Value Forest, were poorly conducted and failed to evaluate adequately the flora and fauna of the proposed plantation area and the ecological and social impact of the plantation.
- The nonprofit group All for Africa has seriously misled the public about the environmental benefits of the project. They have claimed that the oil palm plantation would help mitigate the effects of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide.
- All for Africa failed to tell their donors that the project would remove large expanses of dense, high-canopy forest to plant oil palms, resulting in substantial carbon dioxide and particulate emissions. Oil palm plantations can only have a benefit in slowing climate change if they do not promote deforestation, especially in tropical regions where forests store large quantities of carbon.
It appears that oil palm development is now one of the major threats to biodiversity in Southeast Asia and is quickly emerging as a threat in the Amazon and tropical Africa. It is, however, not disputed when oil palm plantations are established on previously deforested or abandoned lands and do not degrade nearby biologically rich areas, their environmental costs can be acceptable.
(The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)