Palm oil and deforestation

Forest cleared for plantation development, Riau, Sumatra. / ©: Tim Cronin
Forest cleared for plantation development, Riau, Sumatra.
© Tim Cronin
Oil palm grows best in low-lying, wet, tropical areas – which is also where rainforests occur. As palm oil production expands to meet increasing demand, more rainforests are cleared in places like Indonesia, Malaysia and beyond to make way for oil palm plantations.

More than a third of large-scale oil palm expansion between 1990 and 2010 resulted in direct forest loss (about 3.5 million hectares in total) in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, according to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Clearing rainforests for oil palm plantations has destroyed critical habitat for endangered species like rhinos, elephants, tigers and orang-utans, which have all been pushed to the verge of extinction.

The video below was recorded in May and June 2010 in Indonesia’s Bukit Betabuh Protected Forest and clearly shows the threat that deforestation poses to some of the world’s last remaining tigers.



In some cases, deforestation linked to palm oil has also robbed local people of their land and livelihoods, and deprived them of essential ecosystem services like clean water and fertile soils. Human health is likewise affected by smoke from burning forests. This is not just a problem for people living close to the fires but also for those living further afield, as the smoke haze spreads .

The global impacts of deforestation are just as concerning. Deforestation releases large volumes of climate warming gases into the atmosphere. This is particularly severe where deforestation occurs on peat soils, which release enormous amounts of CO2 when cleared and drained. Up to 66% of all climate change emissions from oil palm plantations is estimated to come from the 17% of plantations established on peat soils.

The impacts of deforestation make the shift to sustainable palm oil all the more urgent. The good news is that there is more certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) on the global market than ever before. This is palm oil from plantations established on land that did not contain significant biodiversity, wildlife habitat or other environmental values, and which meets the highest environmental, social and economic standards as set out by the RSPO.
Remnant natural forest adjacent to oil palm plantation in Riau, Sumatra.  / ©: Tim Cronin
Remnant natural forest adjacent to oil palm plantation in Riau, Sumatra.
© Tim Cronin

Did you know?



- Indonesia’s Tesso Nilo forest complex is home to critically endangered Sumatran elephants and tigers as well as one of the world’s highest vascular plant diversities. Until the mid-1980s, the complex covered 1.6 million ha. Today, due to deforestation for oil palm and pulpwood plantations, only about 80,000 ha of natural forest remain.

- The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that agriculture and deforestation (largely driven by expansion of agricultural land) are responsible for around 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

- Forests do not need to be cleared to make way for oil palm plantations. In 2003, although 12.5 million hectares of degraded land was available, most oil palm plantations were established in forested areas in Indonesia.
Peatlands cleared and drained for plantation development (presumably oil palm or pulp). The canals ... / ©: Tim Cronin
Peatlands cleared and drained for plantation development (presumably oil palm or pulp). The canals are used to drain the water from the landscape, which then exposes the peat and releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
© Tim Cronin