By Johannes Pirker and Aline Mosnier, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Research Program

In the late 2000s, Palm oil became a major target of environmental NGO’s working to save tropical forests. Bleak images of recently cleared forest sites left no doubt about the harmful impact of the commodity which today is omnipresent in our food—palm oil today is used in many everyday products such as chocolate bars, shampoo, and margarine.  Campaigning against palm oil is a safe bet for NGO’s; it has become the North Korea among the vegetable oils.

The facts are clear: oil palm cultivation has expanded tremendously in recent years. Indonesia and Malaysia were and continue to be the epicenter of this expansion. In these two countries, new plantations have led to at least 3.7 million hectares of forest loss during the last 20 years, an area bigger than Belgium. This deforestation threatens not only animal and plant species, but  expansion of palm oil plantations is increasingly occurring into carbon-rich peat soils, leading  to  the release of tremendous amounts of climate-warming  CO2  into the atmosphere.

Palm oil fruit. Photo Credit: Aline Soterroni

Palm oil mill of CDC in the South-West province in Cameroon, taken by Aline Soterroni, a 2010 IIASA YSSP participant and collaborator on the REDD-PAC project.  Photo Credit: Aline Soterroni

On the other hand, even environmental NGOs cannot deny that the palm-oil boom has brought major benefits to the economies of producer countries. In Indonesia, the sector is estimated to employ on average 0.4 persons per hectare – at  least 3.2 million jobs in a country where about 30 million people live in poverty. Unskilled slave labor? Well, no. Almost half of the plantations in the country are owned and managed by smallholders. In Thailand the share is as high as three quarters of the total plantation area.

Demand for palm oil remains high and there is now evidence that the palm oil boom might spill over to Central and Western Africa, where about 800,000 hectares of plantation concession have been granted to companies in recent years. Latin American countries too see the opportunity to benefit from the boom, such as Brazil, which has recently included oil palm in its reforestation plans, bolstered by a generous subsidy scheme for smallholders. So is the way inevitably paved for the palm oil industry to embark on a new round of forest-destroying plantation expansion?

Land use planning as a way forward
In many countries land is available – mainly degraded forests and grassland – to satisfy the future demand for palm oil in a less damaging way. Earmarking the right sites for palm plantations requires a good deal of capacity and knowledge by local authorities about where natural conditions are suitable for oil palm, which environmental and social safeguards need to be considered and at which place – a land use planning process.

Global palm oil suitability map

The map above shows where palm oil production is possible on the globe when taking into account climate, soil, and topography features.

The first step toward more sustainable oil production is a map indicating where bio-physical conditions are suitable for oil palm cultivation. To that end, we constructed a global bio-physical suitability map, building on climate, soil and topography data at the resolution of 1 km. The map reveals that in fact the Amazon basin – the better part of it is located in Brazil – harbors by far the biggest stretch of suitable land, followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Indonesia.

IIASA supports the MOABI platform, a collaborative mapping initiative that aims to increase transparency and accountability on resource issues in DRC. Our oil palm suitability map will help to inform this process by providing insight to the sustainability of the expected expansion of oil palm in DRC in the coming years.

This map shows areas that are potentially suitable for oil palm cultivation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

This map shows areas that are potentially suitable for oil palm cultivation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The map was developed from our data, and made interactive and zoomable by our partners the Moabi Project.

Biophysical suitability is not all
However, if and where plantations will start to appear will depend on many factors, most of which are economic :

  • Availability, productivity and costs of land and labor
  • The institutional set-up and support for the sector
  • Accessibility to refinery plants and markets is a key determinant for oil palm plantations profitability

In order to address these issues, an economic model such as IIASA’s Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM)  model can be deployed to gain insights in the likely development of the sector, help land use planning and explicitly show the trade-off between economic development and biodiversity protection.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.