When people talk about deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, palm oil often gets the blame. Demand for the versatile vegetable oil is high worldwide, and the two Asian countries together produce 87% of global supply.
Industrial-scale oil palm plantations have been expanding in the two countries in recent decades, as have plantations of pulpwood, mainly fast-growing acacia species.
But are old-growth forests actually razed to make way for oil palm and pulpwood plantations, or are the plantations installed on land that was cleared in the past for other purposes?
To answer that question, we used a series of satellite images to map the expansion of large industrial oil palm and pulpwood plantations. A collection that spanned two decades, the imagery exposed the loss of old-growth forest in Indonesian and Malaysian Borneo, where nearly half of the world’s industrial-scale oil palm plantations are found.
The spread of plantations showed two peaks, one in 2009 and another in 2012. We found that since 2012, there has been a steady decline in the expansion of plantations into old-growth forest.
Each of the peaks in expansion followed a year in which there was a peak in the price of crude palm oil. That price has been dropping since 2011, coinciding with the decrease in plantation expansion.
The decrease in plantation expansion might be partly due to government efforts to regulate the expansion of plantations into forested areas, but the very strong correlation between prices and expansion indicates that market forces are the main driving force affecting expansion