Palm oil is the world’s most widely used vegetable oil, found in around half of all packaged products on supermarket shelves, from bread and chocolate to cosmetics and detergents. Extracted from the fruit of the African oil palm, over 90% of palm oil is grown in Southeast Asia, primarily in Indonesia and Malaysia. Forest clearance and development on peatland for oil palm plantations are key drivers of biodiversity loss and increasing carbon emissions from fires.
Fresh fruit bunch from an African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) in Papua New Guinea. (Image Credit: New Britain Palm Oil)
Impacts of palm oil production on tropical forests
The area under oil palm development has trebled in the last decade. Although the industry has generated considerable economic growth, this has had significant environmental costs.
Plantation expansion often occurs at the expense of tropical forests and peatlands; between 1990 and 2005 in Malaysia and Indonesia, over half of expansion occurred on previously forested land (Koh and Wilcove, 2008). With this area expected to grow to 18 million hectares by 2020 in Indonesia alone (Setiadi et al., 2011), forest clearance is one of the most significant risks of palm oil production.
Tropical forests provide habitat for half of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, including some of the most critically endangered species. Research shows that plantations support just 47% of the biodiversity levels found in primary tropical forest and only 15-20% of forest species. Many of the highly specialised and rare species found in rainforest are replaced by widespread, generalist and open habitat species (Lucey et al., 2015).
KSI Sumatra High Conservation Value forest corridor in an Indonesian oil palm landscape. (Image Credit: Calley Beamish)
Tropical forests also support vital ecosystem services and livelihoods of around one billion people worldwide. Forests and peatlands play an essential role in the carbon cycle – with as much as 21% of global emissions resulting from tropical deforestation and degradation, addressing forest loss through palm oil presents a significant opportunity to mitigate climate change (Gibson et al., 2011).
ZSL is working with palm oil companies to protect the critically endangered Sumatran tiger Panthera tigris sumatrae.
ZSL started working with the Indonesian palm oil industry in 2001, when a company requested advice on managing populations of Sumatran tigers found in their concessions. We are now an active member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a multi-stakeholder organisation that sets the standard for the RSPO certification scheme and promotes sustainable palm oil worldwide. 21% of palm oil produced internationally is now RSPO certified, and ZSL is working with other members to raise standards and reduce negative impacts on the environment.
Transparency is one of the eight principles of RSPO certification, but publicly available information has long been lacking in terms of producer operations. ZSL developed the Sustainable Palm Oil Transparency Toolkit (SPOTT) to collate disparate public data and encourage companies to become more transparent, in order to monitor and manage issues relating to unsustainable practices.
Transparency assessments for palm oil producers
ZSL’s SPOTT features a companies scorecard assessing 50 of the world’s largest palm oil producers using publicly available information about the sustainability of their operations. ZSL selected the 50 companies based on market capitalization, land area and nominations by SPOTT users, who can use the company assessments to inform how they buy from, engage with, or invest in oil palm growing companies.
SPOTT generates percentage scores for each company based on their performance against more than 50 best practice indicators across seven categories, including reporting to RSPO and availability of High Conservation Value (HCV) and Social and Environmental Impact Assessments, as well as policies and procedures on land acquisition, gaining informed consent, pesticide use, and greenhouse gas emissions reduction, among many others.
Wilmar International is one of the world’s largest palm oil producers. As of May 2016, they score highly on commitments to zero burning and peatland protection, but poorly on greenhouse gas emissions reduction.
The scores for each indicator category are totalled to calculate an overall percentage score per company. Since company operations vary in scope, some indicators are disabled for companies to which they do not apply, so that their percentage scores are weighted accordingly.
Satellite concession site maps
SPOTT also features an interactive mapping tool for a satellite view of oil palm concession sites of companies on the SPOTT scorecard and elsewhere by drawing on data from Global Forest Watch Commodities. The map allows users to identify specific company concessions or mill locations, as well as protected areas, Indonesia’s primary forest cover from 2005, tree cover loss alerts since 2015, and active fires within the past week to 24 hours.
Oil palm concession map of companies featured on the SPOTT scorecard (Click image to explore map).
This information may offer important insights into whether companies are implementing their commitments on the ground, as indications of forest loss and fires at high confidence provide opportunities for engagement; however, discrepancies in the detail and accuracy of the data mean that it is important to check with the company involved before drawing any conclusions on responsibility for specific incidents.
The next step for SPOTT is to determine a way to verify that company commitments are being put into action on the ground. If companies release their data to the public, it would be much easier to monitor the industry and determine whether companies were violating the rules of the RSPO. We also aim to replicate SPOTT for other commodities such as pulpwood and timber.
Lucey J, Hill J, & Reynolds G (2015). Co-benefits for biodiversity and carbon in land planning decisions within oil palm landscapes: A science-for-policy paper for the Oil palm Research-Policy Partnership Network.
Setiadi B, Diwyanto K, Pujiastuti W, Mahendri IGAP & Tiesnamurti B. (2011). Area distribution of oil palm plantation in Indonesia. Jakarta. Center for Research and Development, Ministry of Agriculture Indonesia. ISBN 978-602-8475-45-7.
About the Author
Alexis Hatto coordinates communications both online and offline for ZSL's Business and Biodiversity Conservation Programme managed by Elizabeth Clarke. His work involves designing and promoting the Sustainable Palm Oil Transparency Toolkit (SPOTT), as well as supporting the wider programme's objectives to reduce the negative impacts of industry on the natural world.