Study Finds Oil Palm Certification Plays Limited Role in Curbing Fires

by |December 15, 2016
Fires that are used to clear land for palm oil planting can get out of control, threatening both habitat and human health. Photo: borneoproject.org

Fires that are used to clear land for palm oil planting can get out of control, threatening both habitat and human health. Photo: borneoproject.org

By Alyxandra Pikus

Oil palm is in everything. From food to cosmetics to fuel, oil palm plays an integral role in our lives as the most popular and versatile vegetable oil product on the market. It is consumed and used by most people without giving it a second thought. Yet, oil palm cultivation is a large contributor to environmental and social problems, especially in places like Indonesia, where the business of oil palm cultivation has become the second largest export over the last decade.

Oil palm agriculture comes with other problems as well, including malpractice issues such as oil plantations not consulting local communities before using land, people being displaced, and unsafe working conditions. Better regulation for the palm oil industry could help promote sustainable oil palm and agricultural practices. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is currently the only organization able to certify that palm oil has been harvested and prepared in a sustainable manner.

Sustainable palm oil practices not only aim to ensure better social outcome, but also to maintain biodiversity in a growing human-dominated landscape. The oil palm industry goes hand-in-hand with deforestation to secure more arable land, which is why areas that are Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil-certified do not allow primary forest or areas with endangered species to be cultivated. Other stipulations for certification include a local community’s informed consent before palm oil can be planted in a new area; worker’s rights standards; and reduced usage of pesticides and fires on croplands.

Widespread fires in Indonesia threaten habitat for many animals, including orangutans; here one is being rescued on Kalimantan. Photo: Gerry Ellis/oregonzoo.org

Widespread fires in Indonesia threaten habitat for many animals, including orangutans; here one is being rescued on Kalimantan. Photo: Gerry Ellis/oregonzoo.org

Fire is used on oil palm areas to clear land from brush, eliminate pests or prepare for a new planting season. This has led to problems of escaped fires, particulate air pollution and further habitat loss. Fire is further fueled during dry El Niño years or when fires occur on peatlands prone to burning, such as seen in one of the largest oil palm fires in Indonesia that occurred in 2015 and has led to over 100,000 related deaths across Indonesia.

With the oil palm industry continuing to expand, fire suppression and maintenance will continue to be important. On certified farms, fire usage is designated to be minimal and highly regulated. Theoretically, the Roundtable-certified farms could therefore play a large role in reducing fires in critical areas, reducing biodiversity loss and improving human health. This is under the assumption that certified farms could accurately regulate fire usage.

Yet, in a recent paper published by Professor Ruth DeFries’ lab at Columbia University and the Earth Institute, Roundtable-certified oil palm farms are only successful at reducing fires during low-intensity years. This means that during dry El Niño years or in peatland areas where fires are more prevalent, certification did not significantly reduce fires. A major caveat to this finding was that during the research conducted, the Roundtable still did not have a single, up-to-date database or map of oil palm concessions, severely limiting the dataset on oil palm fires analyzed.

These preliminary results are only the first step to better understanding the potential benefits of Roundtable-certified oil palm concessions. Until more transparent information is obtained, it is unclear what impact Roundtable-certified concessions have on fire mitigation. The benefits of becoming certified will only increase with more awareness about the controversy and issues surrounding oil palm production.

Alyxandra Pikus is an intern with the Earth Institute and an MA candidate in conservation biology at Columbia University.

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