Using degraded land for sustainable palm oil

Photo: Iddy Farmer/CIFOROrganization: World Resources Institute

Palm oil production is a main driver both of the Indonesian economy and deforestation. WRI proposes to relieve pressure on forested lands by diverting palm oil plantations to already degraded lands – ones with low carbon stock and biodiversity, but still suitable for oil palm production.

What road blocks might stand in the way of this plan? Are the goals ambitious enough to make a significant dent in deforestation? Is synergism between economic development and environmental responsibility really possible? Share your views – join the discussion at the bottom of this page!

Live presentation



Synopsis: The presentation will look at how decision support tools can be developed to help evaluate current land use impacts, and the potential of degraded lands as alternatives for expansion to ensure that future agricultural developments do not damage forests or contribute to climate change

The Problem ↓

Deforestation and forest degradation harm biodiversity, contribute to climate change and increase poverty. 13 million hectares of forest (an area the size of England) is lost globally each year. Evidence suggests that for every million hectares of forest destroyed, up to a billion tonnes of C02 equivalent are lost into the atmosphere, plus the forest that is lost can no longer remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
Globally more than one billion poor people depend on forests for fuel, fodder, medicine, wood and food.

Deforestation and illegal logging (forest degradation) deprive forest-dependent people of their livelihoods.
Indonesia is home to the most extensive rainforests in Asia, and at the same time has one of the highest deforestation rates. Since 1990, approximately 20% of the country’s forests – that is 20 million hectares – have been cleared. According to the FAO, the country has the second highest amount of annual forest loss of any nation, losing 0.7 million hectares per year (2005-1010).  Deforestation is having significant negative implications for people, biodiversity and the climate.

Despite these reductions in forest cover, Indonesia still has the third largest remaining humid tropical forests in the world (about 94.5 million ha of forest cover, of which around half is primary) and extensive forested peatlands, which are extremely rich in carbon. Indonesia’s forests are rich in biological diversity, including many endemic species, and provide ecosystem goods and services such as watershed protection, local climate regulation and erosion prevention. The forests play a critical role in the livelihoods of local communities and the national economy.

Much of this deforestation and drainage has taken place to create land for expanding oil palm plantations.
Indonesia currently produces 44% of global supply of palm oil, with 8 million hectares of covered in oil palm plantations. Around 3.7 million people are involved in the palm oil agricultural sector which contributes 6-7% to the country’s GDP.   The Indonesian government is committed to doubling its current palm oil production by 2020, which could lead to an additional 8 million hectares of land converted into oil palm plantations. However, this will come at a cost if previous practices continue, since more than 50% of the country’s existing plantations were established by clearing natural forests

The Solution ↓

Indonesia has millions of hectares of degraded land.  In this context ‘degraded land’ means land that was deforested some time ago, has low carbon stocks and low levels of biodiversity – but is still suitable for palm oil cultivation.

Indonesia has made substantial commitments to reducing its GHG emissions as a contribution to global efforts to fight global warming – 26% reduction from “business as usual” by 2020 or 41% reduction with international assistance.  The Government’s plan for achieving this objective states that 87% of these reductions should come from changes in land use and improved management of forests, since this sector accounts for a similar percentage of emissions.  Achieving this objective has become one of the central targets of current national government, and is of global political significance, since Indonesia is one of few emerging economies to make specific commitments to substantial emissions reductions.

Indonesia also has national targets for job creation, poverty reduction and economic growth – vital for maintaining political and economic stability.  It is important that Indonesia is able to demonstrate practical solutions which show that development and environmental responsibility can go hand in hand, and even be synergistic.

If future plantations were to be diverted to Indonesia’s degraded lands, then Indonesia could achieve expansion of its palm oil production to meet growing world demand and create jobs, whilst avoiding deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and social conflict.

To help enable such expansion, the World Resources Institute (WRI) and Indonesian national NGO partner Sekala are implementing project POTICO.  POTICO seeks to prevent deforestation in Indonesia―and enable a supply of sustainably produced palm oil―by diverting planned oil palm plantations away from natural forests and onto low-carbon degraded lands instead, and by enabling the sustainable management of  the natural forest areas previously slated for conversion.

A key ingredient to any degraded land utilization strategy is identifying exactly where low-carbon, degraded areas potentially suitable for oil palm are located.  To this end, POTICO has created a methodology for identifying and mapping degraded lands in Indonesia. Maps of degraded land potentially suitable for oil palm have been created for Indonesian part of the island of Borneo and ready to expand to entire Indonesian archipelago and West-Africa and South-America

The Method ↓

Creation of a degraded land map for Indonesian Borneo. There is considerable added value in having a single map.  This will be the first such map of the whole territory and will allow planners, companies and policymakers to work on a landscape scale. This is significant as some provinces will have more degraded land and thus potential for low-carbon oil palm expansion than others. Diverting expansion across administrative boundaries has implications which need to be debated and resolved as part of a sub-regional or national strategy. This also will demonstrate how the approach can be used at a large geographic scale.
This map, and the data and methods behind it, will be posted on a public, free-to-use interactive website.

Users will be able to adjust criteria parameters and create their own maps. Such a site will be extremely empowering for local civil society groups, local governments, oil palm planters and oil palm buyers, investors and those involved in REDD+.  It will be a major demonstration of how to achieve transparency in land use planning and contribute to national trends toward greater transparency and improved governance of forests and land, at a time when issues of transparency and land tenure in planning are growing in profile.

These maps and the interactive website (the “database”) with its free downloadable data will form a model for the ‘Degraded Land Database’ which is to be created under the Indonesia-Norway agreement.  We expect that the database will serve to prove that there is enough degraded land to accommodate planned expansion of the oil palm industry (and likely expansion of other commodity production such as pulpwood and rubber that could utilize low-carbon lands in lieu of converting natural forests), thus providing a route to achieving low-carbon growth. Critical governance questions around how to grant access to suitable land, how to revoke permits, how to change land status and how to involve local people in decisions where their rights are affected must also be addressed. Action research will focus upon what legal structures can facilitate sustainable management (e.g., Hutan Desa, Hutan Masyarakat and Ecosystem Restoration Concessions). On-the-ground community mapping will work with local people to evaluate what livelihood options exist in the area, and thus what is the best way to deliver a poverty-reducing forest management approach.

Implementation of a comprehensive communications, promotion and training strategy.  A “how to” guide advising companies, communities and government on how to implement land swaps following best practice legal and social procedures, and the establishment of sustainable palm oil on degraded land, in both English and Indonesian will be produced. This, alongside output 2, will be launched at a National workshop in Jakarta which will be followed by similar launches and training events in regional and district capitals in Kalimantan. 

  • Rivaldo Kpadonou November 29, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    I think this idea even if it can allows reducing pressure on forested lands, doesn’t target the poor farmers. Firstly, I would like to know for which end the palm oil will be used: is it for the biofuel or for the food or local use? And, if it will be used for biofuel production, who are the producers and who will be the users or consumers? About this last question, there are three alternatives: either it is the multinational firms that grab these degraded lands to produce palm oil for meeting energy needs of developed countries, either it is the smallholder farmers that produce the palm oil and sale its to the multinational enterprises, or it is the smallholder farmers that produce the palm oil which will be use to meet local needs of energy. But, this last alternative which should be more beneficial to local people is less unlikely. Also, will palm oil production on degraded lands not affect land availability for food production? Indeed, in many areas where farmers face to land pressure, they managed to regenerate degraded lands through local practices for growing staple crops. Thus, diverting palm oil plantations to already degraded lands could limit the capacities of the smallholder farmers facing to land constraints and food security challenge.

  • john November 30, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    I agree with Rivaldo.. I think the poster does not give enough information. It is applaudable to use degraded land for palm oil production, but for the non-insiders like me, I’d like to have more information. If it is only to produce more fuel (even if it is biofuel), to be exported to be big fuel-consuming nations, then i am not sure if there would not be better use to be made of degraded land.
    It is a fact of course, I have to admit, that growing palm trees to produce the fuel, will “green” areas that might otherwise degrade even further.

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