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Palm Oil Deforestation: Adverse Effects & Ways to Stop

31.05.2021
young palm oil plantation on the place of deforested area

Palm oil is included in versatile products, from hygiene items to biofuel or food. However, the ingredient is notorious for the palm oil deforestation issue, apart from its affordability. Sadly, palm oil and deforestation closely relate. Its growing consumption increases demand, which aggravates the situation even more. The palm oil deforestation map covers the rainforests of Latin America, West Africa, and Southeast Asia, bringing negative consequences for tropical wildlife and our planet in general. Deforestation for palm oil is no reasonable solution, though, and commodity producers should switch to more sustainable methods instead.

How Does Palm Oil Contribute To Deforestation?

Various satellite imagery sources reveal severe forest losses globally, many of which are connected to deforestation due to palm oil production. Just to illustrate it with figures, the market demand in 2019 made 74.6 million tons, with an expected rise of 2.3% by 2027. Consequently, this rise involves land grabbing and deforestation for palm oil, making the greatest impact on rainforest areas.

The reason for the product’s popularity is its increased use for food, from baby formulas to snacks. The benefits of this ingredient are disputable. Even though palm oil is 50% saturated fats, increasing cholesterol levels and heart disease risks, it is still trans-fat free and has less saturated fat, say, than butter. Considering that the product is cheap, it is an obvious choice for many. In fact, the commodity has penetrated our lives through shampoo, toothpaste, detergent, medications, chocolate, cookies, ice cream, soap, and whatnot. This is not necessarily bad. The bad thing is that palm oil contributes to deforestation.

Why does the growing of palm oil lead to deforestation? When palm oil producers want to expand their businesses but run out of available lands, they turn to forest cutting. In this situation, rainforest deforestation for palm oil reaches an immensely vast span. It happens because the palm is a tropical or subtropical plant, and rainforest areas are the most suitable for its growth. This is why they suffer most.

palm oil trees

Does All Palm Oil Contribute To Deforestation?

Fortunately not. The rate of deforestation for palm oil gradually slows down, thanks to governmental control, ecologic NGO activities, law enforcement, public awareness, ethical concerns, producers’ and consumers’ responsibility, and merely common sense. Thus, the compliance of oil palm fruit production with voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) in 2016 made 17.4% globally. It may seem not really much compared to 82.2% of the conventional one. However, accounted that it had been 100% conventional until 2013, the achievement was great.

Ideally, palm oil without deforestation is possible. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was created in 2004 to advocate the eco-friendly approach and revert the process of deforestation for palm oil. As a result, major consumer goods manufacturers like Colgate-Palmolive, P&G, Nestle, Ferrero, Pepsico Inc., Unilever, and others pledged to use fully sustainable (zero deforestation) sources by 2022. RSPO Annual Communication of Progress (ACOP) of 2019 reports up to 100% transition to certified products. It also uncovers certain failures to meet the 2020 deadlines for NDPE commitments (no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation). In particular, some big companies show the following results: Bayer – 100%, Unilever – 99.56%, Colgate-Palmolive – 61.95%, to mention a few. Still, only 19% of the commodity has been RSPO-certified globally by now.

young palm oil plantation

Adverse Effects Of Palm Oil Deforestation

Technically, some trees are cut to grow others, but it’s in no way reforestation. Palms do contribute to air purification, yet rainforest deforestation due to palm oil production would be but a lame excuse.

Here are some of the most severe negative effects of deforestation for palm oil production. Thus, deforestation:

  • Endangers thousands of rainforest species by destroying their natural habitat for the sake of plantations, which drastically impacts biodiversity. Indeed, Indonesian forests house 10% of the world’s unique fauna species, as of the 2014 report of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry in Indonesia.
  • Deprives ingenious peoples of their native lands in Southeastern Asia where they lived for centuries but lost their land rights and were displaced.
  • Contributes to global warming by increasing GHG emissions due to carbon release, particularly, after slash-and-burn practices. In addition, choking fumes of burning forests poison people and nature.
  • Increases risks of flooding and landslides because trees make a natural barrier to water flows, and newly planted ones need time to grow.
  • Reduces soil health. Trees hold the earth in place with their strong root systems, but the nutrient-rich top layer is easily washed away after their removal, which is adverse to soil fertility. Besides, palm oil deforestation leads not only to soil depletion but soil erosion and sedimentation as well.
  • Adds to water pollution. Washed-off soil particles and other contaminants leak off to water bodies.
palm oil mill next to the forest

How Palm Oil Mills Affect Expansion Of Plantations

Palm oil production is favorable for economic development and employment, particularly, in rural areas. However, stakeholders often try to run their businesses nearly at maximum, striving for the highest ROIs. Palm oil mill owners are no exception. Logically, the more their mills process, the more raw materials they need.

However, greediness hardly accords sustainability. In this case, it is often among the causes of palm oil deforestation, which prevents consumer goods manufacturers from meeting the NDPE requirements. This is why companies are to check their supply chains and exclude the compromising deforestation links. They can achieve the goal with good governance and proper expertise.

EOS Forest Monitoring

An online sustainable forest management service based on the latest remote sensing technology.

EOSDA To Monitor Deforestation Due To Palm Oil Production

Obviously, huge enterprises can’t inspect thousands of their global suppliers in place. However, here is what they can:

Thus, it is much easier to know about deforestation due to palm oil with remote sensing and satellite data analytics. Furthermore, as most brands align to their zero-deforestation commitments, they opt for suppliers who use ONLY agricultural lands to widen their plantations.

Alongside that, detecting deforestation events around mills de facto is not the only use of satellite monitoring. It also allows assessing the risks of a potential effect of palm oil production on deforestation. Thus, it is possible to correlate mill capacity with nearby plantation productivity that can be estimated with historical and current satellite images. If nearby plantation productivity is lower than mill capacity, the shortfall may cause forest cuts for plantation expansion. So, such mills require acute attention.

Besides, satellite monitoring suggests near real-time alerts to all business stakeholders to look deeper into the situation whenever necessary. Big manufacturers can turn to free satellite imagery sources or invest in partnerships with tech companies to be in the know by deploying monitoring systems around their mills.

EOSDA offers satellite monitoring systems of forest cover with its LandViewer and upcoming product for forestry needs. The infographics below illustrate the possibility to detect deciduous forests, forest cuts, newly planted trees, and oil palm plantations.

deforestation monitoring connected with palm oil production

The images are based on the following band combinations:

  • Natural color is similar to human perception, so vibrant vegetation is green; unhealthy plants are yellowish or brownish.
  • Color infrared (vegetation) distinguishes plants in the hues of red, while lighter hues are for bushes and grasses. Brown or dark red is assigned to conifer forests, which look darker compared to deciduous ones.
  • Agriculture bands show vegetation in green.
  • False color features vegetation in darker to lighter greens.

With new platform Forest Monitoring by EOSDA, detecting deforested areas becomes even easier. Select an AOI and monitor any changes in forest canopy continuously.

Sustainable Palm Oil Production

It is clear that with increasing commodity demand, plantation areas will also expand. However, to comply with sustainability and no-deforestation requirements, it should be done in a way that is alternative to deforestation. Thus, sustainable solutions to palm oil deforestation suggest locating plantations only on agricultural and fallow lands, not at the cost of forest cuts. This approach will eliminate the adverse environmental effects of the devastating practice.

The goal implementation requires close collaboration of all stakeholders, including authorities and regular citizens. With a sole demand for the certified, deforestation-free product and an eradicated use of the deforestation-involved one, the situation will drastically improve.

Satellite monitoring of both certified and non-certified sources facilitates a successful outcome of the palm oil rainforest deforestation issue, among the many more capabilities of data-driven analytics.