Oil Palm Plantation Expansion

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Indonesia and Malaysia may be distinct political and cultural entities, but they are both undergoing the same process of LCLUC - namely that of agricultural expansion vis-à-vis oil palm plantation extensification. The conversion to oil palm plantations in this region constitutes not only large-scale deforestation but also a total destruction of peat forests both of which are important stores of carbon. In addition to oil palm plantation conversion's contribution to global climate changes; it also significantly threatens regional biodiversity marginalizes local peoples from their lands and has immeasurable impacts upon the regional environment.

Critical Statistics:
  1. Oil palm plantations are well established in North Sumatra (Indonesia) and Johor, Perak, and Pahang (Malaysia) and have expanded significantly into South Sumatra, Jambi, and Lampung (Indonesia), while the frontiers of expansion are in West Kalimantan (Indonesia) and Sabah and Sarawak (Malaysia) (Kessler et al 2007).

  2. In Indonesia alone, approximately 5 million people are involved in some stage of palm oil production (Cochester et al 2006).

  3. Between 1995 and 2005, 55-59% of oil palm expansion in Malaysia and 56% of that in Indonesia occurred by means of primary or secondary forest destruction, the remaining occurring due to conversion of already existing croplands (Koh and Wilcove 2008).

  4. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO 2007), between 2003 and 2007, the area harvested in Indonesia increased by 1.5 million hectares. Between 2000 and 2009, mature palm area in Indonesia has doubled in coverage, increasing at an average annual rate of 10%, or by 250000 hectares per year, with 600000 of those ha occurring in Sumatra alone (Shean 2009). In recent years, the Indonesian government has successfully encouraged the expansion of the oil palm cultivation into more remote regions in Kalimantan and Sulawesi, each of which have seen drastic expansion since 2000. The Indonesian Palm Oil Commission (IPOC) estimates that in the past few years, approximately 2.2 million hectares have been planted in addition to the mature palm expansion noted above.

  5. Between 2003 and 2007, the area harvested in Malaysia increased by 481000 hectares (FAO 2007).

  6. The conversion of Southeast Asian peat forests (particularly those in Indonesia and Malaysia) accounts for an estimated 6-7% of the total annual global carbon release to the atmosphere (Schrevel 2008).

  7. Oil palm plantations are cultivated by commercial growers, government estate holdings, and smallholders, the latter holding approximately 44% of the total oil palm land (Shean 2009). The Indonesian Government has provided subsidies to allow these smallholders to cultivate oil palm, although the most impoverished are usually not included in such programs (Schrevel 2008).

  1. Global demand for oil palm products for both consumption in food as well as for use as a biofuel is growing exponentially (Schrevel 2008).

  2. In Indonesia, the Constitution and laws allow for the State to control and allocate all natural resources in the best interest of the Indonesia and its people, thereby facilitating the expansion of oil palm plantations (Colchester et al. 2006; Schrevel 2008). The flip-side of this is that individual and community rights can easily be undermined in the process of promoting national development.

  3. Indonesia and Malaysia have been opening their economies increasingly to foreign investment, allowing for large forests to be cleared to provide access to timber as well as for oil palm use (Colchester et al. 2006; Schrevel 2008).

  1. Conversion of primary or secondary forest to oil palm plantations can lead to significant biodiversity losses, a decrease of general ecosystem productivity, as well as multiple direct and indirect socioeconomic impacts (Kessler et al 2007).

  2. The process of creating an oil-palm plantation releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which serves as a driver of artificial climate change (Schrevel 2008). This operation begins with the digging of canals to drain the area. This water table lowering results in a several meter reduction in the peat layer. Land managers often employ the use of fire to clear the area of excess tree biomass in order to make the region accessible, and prepare the land for oil-palm seedlings to be planted. The lowering of the water table together with this biomass burning destroy large stores of carbon. The scale of land clearing is massive, and accordingly so too is the volume of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere (Schrevel 2008).

  3. Local people lose access to many of the resources upon which they depend for the maintenance of their livelihoods (Schrevel 2008). The conversion from subsistence or small-scale farming to commercialized plantations has major implications for local peoples. As Colchester et al. (2006, 1) point out, "Done right, palm oil should generate wealth and employment from local communities. Done wrong, oil palm estates can lead to land alienation, loss of livelihoods, social conflicts, exploitative labour relations and degraded ecosystems."

  4. Driven to find an alternative method livelihood attainment, these impoverished local people often turn to illegal logging activities, thereby placing additional pressure on forest ecosystems, threatening biodiversity, and destroying peat lands (Colchester et al, 2006).

  5. Fertilizer and pesticide use in Indonesia and Malaysia have exponentially grown over the past decades, leading to both positive and negative effects (Zhao et al. 2006). Crop yields have increased dramatically, but simultaneously, this intensification has resulted in pollution of ground water, eutrophication of rivers, over-use of freshwater resources, and degradation of soil (Zhao et al. 2006).

What is Next:
  1. As of 2008, these regions contained approximately 11% of the Earth's remaining tropical forests (Koh and Wilcove 2008).Their continued depletion could have drastic implications for climate change and global warming, as well as have devastating impacts on the region's biodiversity.

  2. The global market for vegetable oils is projected to double in the next 15-20 years, which implies a potential doubling in land under oil palm production (Colchester et al. 2006).

  3. Growing demands for biofuels could also drive the further expansion of oil palm.The Indonesian government has included in its plans for development a stake in this strengthening market (Colchester et al. 2006).

  4. In order to slow or stop the accelerating trend of tropical forest conversion to oil palm in Indonesia and Malaysia, attitudes and traditions of consumption will need alteration.As Koh and Wilcove (2009, 68) state, "to effectively mitigate the threats of oil palm to biodiversity, conservationists need to persuade consumers to continue to demand both greater transparency in land-use decisions by governments and greater environmental accountability from oil palm producers. A prohibition on the conversion of primary or secondary forests to oil palm is urgently needed to safeguard tropical biodiversity. Until that happens, oil palm might well be the single most immediate threat to the greatest number of species."

  1. Koh, L. P. and D. S. Wilcove. 2008. Is oil palm agriculture really destroying tropical biodiversity? Conservation Letters xx: 1-5.

  2. Schrevel, A. 2008. Oil-palm estate development in Southeast Asia: Consequences for peat swamp forests and livelihoods in Indonesia. In Scoping Agriculture-Wetlands interactions, eds: A. Wood and G. Halsema, 81-6. Rome: FAO.

  3. Kessler, J. J., T. Rood, T. Tekelenburg, and M. Bakkenes. 2007. Biodiversity and Socioeconomic Impacts of Selected Agro-Commodity Production Systems. The Journal of Environment and Development 16(2): 131-60.

  4. FAO. 2007. FAOSTAT Online Statistical Service. United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Rome. http://faostat.fao.org (last accessed 24 October 2009).

  5. Colchester, M., N. Jiwan, M. Andiko, M. Sirait, A.Y. Firdaus, A. Surambo, and H. Pane. 2006. Promised Land: Palm Oil and Land Acquisition in Indonesia: Implications for Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples. Forest Peoples Programme, Perkumpulan Sawit Watch, Huma and the World Agroforestry Center, Bogor, Indonesia.

  6. Zhao, S., C. Peng, H. Jiang, D. Tian, X. Lei, and X. Zhou. 2006. Land use change in Asia and the ecological consequences. Ecological Research 21(6): 890-6.

  7. Koh, L.P. and D.S. Wilcove. 2009. Oil palm: disinformation enables deforestation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24(2): 67-8.

  8. Shean, M. 19 March 2009. Indonesia: Palm Oil Production Growth To Continue. USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Office of Global Analysis, International Production Assessment Division, Washington, D.C. http://www.pecad.fas.usda.gov/highlights/2009/03/Indonesia/ (last accessed 25 October 2009).