Converting palm oil companies from forest destroyers into forest protectors

, 2 January 2011 , by Jeremy Hance and Rhett A. Butler
photo credits: CIFOR/Flickr

“In efforts to save the world’s remaining rainforests great hopes have been pinned on “degraded lands” — deforested lands that are presently sitting idle in tropical countries. Optimists say shifting agriculture to such lands will help humanity produce enough food to meet growing demand without sacrificing forests and biodiversity and exacerbating social conflict. But to date, degraded lands remain an enigma, especially in Indonesia, where deforestation continues at a rapid pace. Degraded lands are often misclassified by various Indonesian ministries—land in a far-off province may be listed as “wasteland” by Jakarta, but in reality is blanked by verdant forest that sequesters carbon, houses wildlife, and affords communities with food, water, and other essentials. Granting logging and plantation concessions on these lands can result in conflict and environmental degradation.

Therefore key to unlocking the potential of non-forest land, and thus setting Indonesia on a low carbon development pathway, is determining where degraded lands actually exist. But the process goes beyond mere land cover mapping. Decision-makers must have the full picture of the land: its ownership and use, its state of degradation and suitability for agriculture, and an understanding of the actions needed to restore it to productivity.

Under the billion dollar Indonesia-Norway partnership to reduce deforestation, some money has been allocated for degraded lands mapping. But even before the pact was signed this past May, the World Resources Institute (WRI) had launched a project to identify degraded lands in the country. Working with local partners, WRI is focusing on ways to address one of Indonesia’s most important drivers of deforestation: palm oil production.

Over the past twenty years, palm oil has emerged as a economic juggernaut in Indonesia and Malaysia. With its high yield, oil palm is an astoundingly profitable crop and accordingly, plantations have spread across Sumatra, Borneo, New Guinea, and other islands, taking a heavy toll on forests. By some estimates, more than half of oil palm expansion since 1990 occurred at the expense of forests. In the absence of action, the trend is expected to continue, driven by rising demand for vegetable oil.

WRI is interested in ensuring that future growth doesn’t lay waste to remaining forests. Therefore its mapping project aims to identify sites for “land swaps” whereby concessions on forest land could be shifted to deforested grasslands. The initiative also provides guidelines to plantation companies for obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of communities living near the degraded area and achieving Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification.

In a December 2010 interview with mongabay.com, WRI’s Craig Hanson and Moray McLeish discussed how the initiative could turn palm oil companies from drivers of deforestation into forest protectors.”

Read the interview: http://news.mongabay.com/2011/0103-wri_interview_hance_butler.html

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