The Palm Scribe

Comprehensive Data is the Key to Palm Oil Sustainability

plantation worker
ILLUSTRATION. Plantation worker watches as a truck unloads freshly harvested oil palm fruit bunches at a collection point.
Palm oil has increasingly become a very consuming subject of contention, with the two opposing and clearly polarized camps busy trading accusations rather than seeking a way out.

The two opposing camps – Those accusing palm oil of being the main culprit behind what they say is the massive ongoing rapid deforestation and destruction of biodiversity, and those arguing that palm oil is a major source of livelihood for millions of people and if produced sustainably is hard to replace as an effective vegetable oil producer – are stubbornly standing on their respective ground.

Regardless of which side in on the side of truth, there is one clear argument for saying that both sides are standing on the weak scientific ground.

How could we measure deforestation when there is no single widely accepted definition of forest, or when there is no accurate data on their actual coverage and expansion over the years.

It is true that while data on industry scale palm oil plantation are much easier to obtain because of the formalized concession systems, getting data on smallholders, what more the independent ones, is much harder because many do not possess land titles and their land are not only small but also widely dispersed.

Official estimates put at around 40 percent of the world’s total palm oil planted land as being managed are by smallholders, who mostly have no legal land documents but also have very limited technical, financial and organizations capabilities.

Differences in opinion in other aspects of palm oil such as cultivation characteristics, water consumptions, impact on biodiversity or the local socio-economical order, also very often are ignoring the various local differences and particular traits. Differences on whether palm oil can or cannot be grown on peat soil only heighten the conflict further.

These sharp differences in opinion over palm oil, also more often than not are focused on a single aspect of palm oil cultivation, such as deforestation, violations of worker rights or those of local communities, but do not look at the problem or its impact in a cross-sectoral manner. And a better alternative to palm oil in meeting the global need for vegetable oil is almost never put forward.

True, it cannot be denied that palm oil has caused deforestation, especially in the decades of peak oil palm plantation development. But from there to say that deforestation continues to progress at the same rapid rate, without providing supporting concrete evidence, would also not advance things further.

In the context of a scientific debate, supporting data is everything, In the case of palm oil, however, there have been no clear and precise global data on palm oil cultivation and its impacts. Existing studies are mostly very local in nature.

Only with adequate, comprehensive data on palm oil cultivation across the globe, including on those of smallholders, can a better image of the entire industry be obtained.

Therefore, efforts to continuously complete and update data on palm oil cultivation in the world would be like a fresh breath of air for the industry.

One of those efforts is currently being undertaken by the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Last Year, IUCN issued a report titled Palm Oil and Biodiversity, based on analysis of existing studies. It also said that further researches were still necessary and will still be conducted in a bid to obtain a strong database on this commodity.

“This report offers objective and science-based evidence to support a better reference for the palm oil industry and for organizations and governments who are making decisions and standards on palm oil,” the introduction to the report said.

It pointed out that there was strong evidence that palm oil would continue to be there, considering the continuously rising global demand for vegetable oil and the fact that oil palm can produce oil much more effectively than any other crop.

One of the weaknesses of attackers of palm oil is that they are not able to provide a better alternative solution to replace palm oil without causing more deforestation and negative impacts on the environment. At present, it appears as there is no easy way to gradually eliminate oil palms without causing more significant environmental and social damage.

As a first of a series, this research showed for the first time, a comprehensive mapping of all industrial-scale oil palm plantation in the world. It also provided a study of deforestation statistics related to oil palm plantation development. Based on this map, it is estimated that a total of 18.7 million hectares of land are planted with palm oil on an industrial scale.

The report also tries to identify the main gaps in knowledge, and through situational analysis, provide an orientation for addressing these gaps.

One of those gaps and this is also admitted in the report, is the lack of data on the extent of smallholder’s oil palm plantation, especially those of independent smallholders. “So, the total area planted with oil palm should be significantly larger than the 18.7 million hectares as had been mentioned here,” it said, adding that further efforts were needed to fill the gaps.

IUCN is currently said to be undertaking a mapping of smallholder plantations by mapping the total areas planted with palm oil using satellite imaging and subtracting the known area of industry-scale oil palm plantation

The report also said that based on the statistics analyzed, the development of oil palm plantation caused less than 0.5 percent of the deforestation in the world, although in a number of the tropical area the figure could be much, much higher, up to 50 percent. It also cited a global study focused on intact forest landscapes that said that oil palm accounted for only around 0.2 percent of deforestation in tropical areas.

It also cited a number of studies which said that the worst damage on forest landscape caused by oil palm development was in Borneo, an island divided between Malaysia and Indonesia. It also pointed out that the damage was much worst in the Malaysian side of the island as in Indonesia, more new plantations were established in non-forest ecologically degraded land and not by opening forests.

Long before the development of palm oil, Kalimantan’s forests had long suffered from large-scale destruction due to the extraction of logs and burning. These opened forests later were used to plant a number of crops, including oil palm.

The existence of comprehensive and clear data will really help in getting a better, more accurate data on the extent of oil palm cultivation and its impact, bad or good, for the environment or for humankind.

With an area of just 18.7 million hectares, oil palm is already the third largest vegetable oil producer in terms of area after soybean and rapeseed. Because of its high productivity, even though it uses less than 10 percent of the total area planted with oil-producing crops, oil palm is able to produce 35 percent of the total supply of vegetable oil.

More comprehensive data, including comparative data, would be able to provide a sense of the steps that must be taken in meeting the rising global demand for vegetable oil at the lowest environmental and socio-economical costs.

It would be so much better it all sides could restrain themselves until further results of researches are obtained and then seek to work together to arrive at the best solution for the sustainability of this world environment.

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