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Satellite data and computational power bring accountability to the expansion of palm oil plantations in Borneo.

[JAKARTA] Unrestrained extraction of natural resources and relentless expansion of agriculture are responsible for the current environmental crisis, marked by insect collapse and wildlife loss. But the good news is that with satellite and computational technology, it is now possible to keep tabs on legal and illegal landscape changes.  
 
Satellite-based cameras daily capture data and images of the Earth that can be analysed with an inexpensive laptop computer. The human footprint can be monitored at the continental level over long periods of time. Furthermore, in almost real-time, these images can be placed online via web map services, making possible new levels of transparency and accountability in such areas as oil palm plantation expansion. 
 
Currently, we at the Center for International Forestry Research, Bogor, Indonesia, are building a platform to track oil palm and pulpwood companies’ compliance with zero-deforestation targets.

“Looking at annual trends, we discovered that after peaks in 2009 and 2012, industrial oil palm plantations and associated company-driven deforestation have been steadily decreasing*, despite a peak in forest loss in 2016 due to wildfires caused by a disruptive El Niño weather system.”

David Gaveau, Center for International Forestry Research

Oil palm plantations produce about 40 per cent of the world’s vegetable oil which is used for cooking and in processed foods. It goes into cosmetics or gets converted into biofuel. Oil palm is grown in some 43 tropical countries, but 92 per cent of the global planted area is concentrated in Indonesia and Malaysia.
 
The island of Borneo, home to the iconic orangutan and pygmy elephant and shared by Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, concentrates 45 per cent (8.3 million hectares) of the global planted area (18.6 million hectares) under oil palm with most of this area (5.4 million hectares) developed during the last two decades.
 
Various industry and government representatives dispute that plantations cause deforestation. There is some truth in the argument that the plantations came up on already deforested land. But as shown previously, large areas of forests, converted to grasslands by repeated wildfire in Kalimantan, were transformed to plantations decades later.
 
Indonesia grasslands

Central Kalimantan grasslands. (Image credit: David Gaveau)

Conservationists argue that oil palm plantations are the top drivers of forest and wildlife loss in Borneo and that they exacerbate peat fires in Borneo and on the island of Sumatra. Research indicates that the Indonesian province of Papua could go the same way. To improve transparency, we need reliable numbers of loss by causation.
 
Gathering data

While the general debate continues, we recently published the true extent of deforestation caused by the plantation industry in Borneo in the journal Conservation Letters. We analysed an annual time-series of satellite imagery spanning 18 years with Google Earth Engine, a cloud-based platform dedicated to planetary scale environmental data analysis.

Time-series satellite imagery allows measurement of time lag between the moment an area of forest is cleared and the moment the plantation is developed. For example, industrial plantations that are developed rapidly — within one year of forest clearance -—– are likely to be responsible for that clearance, while the longer the delay between forest loss and plantation development, the less likely a plantation company is responsible.

Timelapse of deforestation in Indonesia

Timelapse of the deforestation in Borneo (Image credit: David Gaveau)

Each year from 2001 until 2017 (2018 data is still being processed), we mapped three kinds of land cover change across Borneo at Landsat resolution:

·         Forest loss: The total area of forest cleared by plantation companies for conversion to industrial oil palm or pulpwood plantations, by small farmers, forest fires, infrastructure developments, open-pit mining and reservoirs for hydropower dams.
·         Expansion of industrial plantations: The area of new large oil palm and pulpwood plantations developed each year.
·         Company-driven deforestation: The area of forest cleared and converted to industrial plantations in the same year. 

Number crunching
 
We found that plantation companies had, within a year, converted 2.8 million hectares to plantations in Borneo between 2000 and 2017, or nearly half of all total deforestation of 6.04 million hectares during that period.

Oil palm plantation
 
Oil palm plantation (Image credit: Ulet Ilfansati/Greenpeace*)

Looking at annual trends, we discovered that after peaks in 2009 and 2012, industrial oil palm plantations and associated company-driven deforestation have been steadily decreasing*, despite a peak in forest loss in 2016 due to wildfires caused by a disruptive El Niño weather system. The strong correlation with crude palm oil prices indicates that the decrease in plantation expansion is probably due to a steady price decline since 2011.

In 2017, plantation expansion and forest loss slowed down because of sustained low oil prices. Additionally, there were fewer forest fires due to wet conditions. We also do not rule out the possibility that initiatives to regulate expansion of plantations into forests and to prevent fires have had a positive impact.

Regulatory initiatives include oversight by non-governmental organisations, a total ban on the use of fire in plantations, “no deforestation” commitments and such industry watchdogs as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

Significantly, in 2011, the Indonesian government instituted a nationwide moratorium on new licenses to use land designated as primary forest to try and reduce fires linked to deforestation. In 2016, the country implemented a moratorium on the conversion of peatlands, another major carbon sink, also to try and prevent forest fires. It was extended in September 2018 to improve governance of sustainable palm oil plantations, maintain environmental sustainability and contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases.

Additionally, “no deforestation” commitments have been voluntarily adopted across the private sector. Many of the world's largest traders and producers of palm oil and pulpwood have pledged to eliminate deforestation from their supply chain. The coverage of “no deforestation” commitments, some immediate and some with 2020 deadlines, is impressive. Already, over three-quarters of internationally traded palm oil is conducted by companies that have made “no deforestation” commitments, whereas only 20 per cent is certified.  

While our observations justify cautious optimism, a great deal of work remains to ensure a future for Borneo’s forests. Global market forces play a role in determining the rate of plantation expansion and company-driven deforestation. The challenge will be to determine how low deforestation can be sustained if prices rise again.   

David Gaveau
 
Image credit: David Gaveau

David Gaveau, research associate at the Centre for International Forestry Research, works on the intersection of spatial-temporal land-use change data, the environment, the climate, economics and policy. He specialises in the use of satellites to study the human footprint on Earth’s land surface. He examines the impact of fires, agricultural expansion and infrastructure development on tropical forests by creating time-lapse animations of land use and land cover change. He is building a living, breathing atlas of Indonesia and Malaysia.
 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

* This article was amended on 15 February 2019. The word "increasing" in both instances was changed to "decreasing". The photo attribution was also changed from David Gaveau to Ulet Ilfansati/Greenpeace.