Monday, February 3, 2014

Oil-Palm Reduction Efforts in Southeast Asia

The transformation of peatland to oil-palm plantations has perpetuated an ongoing decline in biodiversity for Southeast Asia.  Restoration efforts of the current clearings could partially make up for the significant decrease in biodiversity, while continuous clearing for oil-palm plantations could result in irrevocable damage.  The impact of these losses is spurning a conservation effort in specific regions of Southeast Asia that retain the majority of their peat swamp forests and by extension preserved biodiversity. 

Indonesia and Malaysia produce over 85% of the worlds palm oil and have been focal points for the threat of deforestation in tropically lined parts of the globe.  Loss of such rich ecology amounts to a loss of “important ecosystem services, including biodiversity conservation, pest control, water filtration, and carbon storage and sequestration” (Koh, 5127).  Unfortunately, even though these impacts are recognized by the larger scientific community, there is little data that objectively captures the historical extent of the damage done.  This is compounded by the fact that environmental issues are nebulous by nature, given the wide range of variables that come into play.  The significance of GIS in relation to this predicament is that these researches will be able to:

i) to produce a 250-m spatial resolution map of closed canopy oil-palm plantations in the lowlands of Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo, and Sumatra for 2010; (ii) to quantify the extent of oil-palm expansion in tropical peatlands by the early 2000s; (iii) to model the biodiversity impacts of converting peat swamp forests to oil palm, based on a matrix-calibrated species-area model; (iv) to estimate the magnitudes of above- and below ground carbon emissions and forfeited carbon sequestration service due to peatland deforestation; and (v) to project the environmental impacts of alternative future land-use scenarios for the region’s peatlands.

This will result in the type of data needed to assess the conversion of rainforest and total damage accumulated.  While this information can lead to vital policy implementations and protective measures there is a vagueness that complicates which portions of land are deemed restorable.  For example, peat swamp land that has been cleared, but not repurposed for oil palm plantation is often considered “degraded land” and set aside for oil-palm production in the future.  This seems paradoxical when one considers the international negotiations on climate-change mitigation and forest protection, but economic drivers are the key culprits here.  While agricultural implementation costs have reduced the rate at which palm oil plantations are being established, the increased global demand for palm oil will only rise unless more rigorous definitions and standards are imposed on protecting threatened forests such as those in Southeast Asia.  Utilizing GIS tactics as a kind of scientific activism can be a powerful tool in making this potentiality an actuality.    

Koh, Lian Pin, Miettinen, Jukka, Lieu, Soo Chin, & Ghazoul, Jaboury.  (2011, March 22).  Remotely sensed evidence of tropical peatland conversion to oil palm.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(12), 5127-5133.


  1. Good point about the difficulty in accruing evidence that can really encapsulate the numerous services and benefits provided by virgin forests especially in the face of economic drivers as you mentioned. I would think that the komodo dragon would be reason enough to stray from chopping down the heartland of Borneo, but I guess not. Also, I understand but am frustrated by the mentality that the peat swamp land is degraded so we might as well set that aside for future palm oil production.

  2. Woah. I've been aware of the degradation caused by our dependence of palm oil, but it was very helpful to visually see it- a testament to the powers of GIS. I'd be interested to see a map of your last paragraph that details peat swamp deemed as "degraded land" that specifically shows where future palm projects are planned and a better analysis of what ecological impacts these future expansions would have.

  3. I think that this presents a useful application for GIS in terms of aiding planning and determining land usage. However, because as you noted palm oil is such a key economic factor in the region, I wonder how this would effect future action by planners and what data and maps if any are being used to quantify the loss prior to development. This underscores how economic development can sometimes take precedence over environmental issues when the full impact of the project is not fully know. I agree that data is needed that is able to better and more fully represent the impacts of certain actions.