Palm oil plantation in former jungle
Tropical forest cleared for palm oil plantations is gone forever. Photo: ©Shutterstock

The march of oil palm continues unchecked

Just when you thought the environmental news couldn’t get any worse, there is confirmation of massive forest loss to industrial agriculture. But not in the usual places.

A new analysis – the first to examine where forests are disappearing, and why—confirms the loss of about 5 million ha (the area of Costa Rica) of mainly tropical forest annually.

Science magazine reports that despite years of pledges by companies to help reduce deforestation, the amount of forest cleared to plant oil palm and other booming crops remained steady between 2001 and 2015.

Although deforestation in Brazil declined during the study period, there was a “staggering” increase in forest conversion for industrial agriculture (mainly oil palm) in Southeast Asia.

Really big deal

Tropical ecologist and director of the Earth Innovation Institute (EII) in San Francisco, Daniel Nepstad says the finding is “a really big deal.” It suggests that corporate commitments alone will not protect forests from expanding agriculture.

The analysis shows 27% of the total loss between 2001 and 2015 was the result of large-scale ranching and farming – including industrial palm oil plantations. “Forest cleared for those plantations is gone for good, whereas forest cleared for other purposes, including small-scale farming, typically grows back,” the researchers note.

Huge soybean harvesting operation
Vast areas of Amazonia have been cleared for industrial agriculture, like this giant soybean farm. Photo: ©Shutterstock

While large swaths of Amazonian forest have been cleared for cattle ranches or soybean farms, the rate of deforestation in Brazil halved between 2004 and 2009, because of enforcement of environmental laws and pressure from soybean customers.

Slack laws

But in Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, laws against deforestation are often lacking or poorly enforced. “We’ve known this [was happening], but we didn’t have the numbers to show it consistently across the globe,” says researcher Philip Curtis.

Despite receiving 473 company pledges to support zero deforestation by not purchasing palm oil or other major commodities from plantations or farms that were recently cleared of forest, Nepstad says only 49 reported good progress.

“The corporate commitments have been difficult to implement, and some companies just don’t want to do much.”

Natural Images 2018


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