Land used for palm oil could double without damaging forests, say researchers

A plantation worker harvests fruit from oil palm trees at Suka Dame village in Deliserdang, in Indonesia's North Sumatra province.
A plantation worker harvests fruit from oil palm trees at Suka Dame village in Deliserdang, in Indonesia's North Sumatra province.PHOTO: AFP

RIO DE JANEIRO (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - The area covered by palm oil plantations worldwide could double without damaging protected areas or sensitive forests, Austrian researchers said on Tuesday (July 26).

Researchers from the Austria-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) studied satellite maps from South-east Asia, Africa and Latin America to determine where the crop used to make vegetable oils and other consumer products could be expanded sustainably.

The findings follow criticism from campaign groups who say the expansion of palm oil plantations has destroyed rainforests and displaced local people from their ancestral lands.

An area larger than Uruguay, more than 18 million hectares of land, is covered by palm oil plantations, up from six million hectares in 1990, IIASA said.

Expansion of the crop, which accounts for about 30 per cent of all vegetable oil used worldwide, has been concentrated in biodiversity-rich tropical forests in Malaysia and Indonesia.

The industry could grow sustainably if the right policies are put in place, the researchers said.

"Currently, 'no-deforestation' pledges are being formulated and eventually implemented on different scales - from palm oil traders to provincial governments," IIASA researcher Johannes Pirker told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"As a co-benefit of these initiatives improved land use planning and tenure clarification, smallholder inclusion and improved production practices might come about, which will ultimately also benefit the land rights of traditional communities," Pirker said.

Satellite data shows an area of up about 19 million hectares onto which the industry could grow without damaging forests that are particularly valuable for biodiversity or storing carbon as means of combating climate change, IIASA said.

Globally, an estimated three million small farmers work in the palm oil business and this could rise above seven million if the industry is expanded sustainably, IIASA said.