Certified “sustainable” palm oil replaced endangered mammals habitat and biodiverse tropical forests in the last 30 years, a new study suggests

Researchers confirm that palm oil certification does not ensure “environmental sustainability”

Global concern has raised around the “sustainability” of palm oil in terms of global exportation and the impact on the environment in recent years. Therefore, stakeholders from the different sectors of the palm oil industry including oil palm producers, retailers, banks, investors, nature conservation and developmental NGOs, formed in 2004 the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) with “the objective of promoting the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders”. Some studies claimed that certification significantly reduced deforestation in plantations of RSPO members but further analyses suggested that certified palm oil is not so sustainable as believed before. This is because deforestation was usually evaluated in certified plantations that already contained little remaining forest at the start of the studies. It seemed trivial that, in already heavily damaged areas, if studies do not account for recent land changes, concession certification appears beneficial for the environment.

A new study just published in the journal Science of the Total Environment (Certified “sustainable” palm oil took the place of endangered Bornean and Sumatran large mammals habitat and tropical forests in the last 30 years, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.140712) conducted by Prof. Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, Associate Professor at the Tomsk State University in Russia and Research Fellow at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Austria and the Russian biologist Alena Velichevskaya showed – with a highly detailed analysis of satellite images – that certified oil palm concessions and supply bases replaced endangered mammals habitat and biodiverse tropical forests of Sumatra and Borneo during the last few decades.

“In our previous study of 2019 – declared Prof. Roberto Cazzolla Gatti – we already suggested that certified concessions do not differ much from non-certified ones. We used preliminary data of forest cover loss from 2001 to 2016 and found that certified palm oil production cannot be completely deforestation-free. This time we increased, even more, the detail of our research, enlarging the time-series to the last 36 years and adopting a direct analysis of high-resolution of satellite images to evaluate the impact of oil palm expansion on endangered mammals habitat and tropical forests of Sumatra and Borneo”.

Tropical forests of South-east Asia are inhabited by endangered orangutans, rhinos, tigers, and elephants and threatened by deforestation, including oil palm expansion. This new study, from a remotely sensed time-series and imagery analysis (1984-2020), found that most of the currently certified grower supply bases and concessions in Sumatra and Borneo are located in the 1990s large mammals habitat and in areas that were biodiverse tropical forests less than 30 years ago.

“We suggest – continued Prof. Cazzolla Gatti – that the word ‘sustainable palm oil’ must no longer be used to greenwash this tropical product’s reputation because it cannot certify that the production of palm oil comes from a non-recently degradation of tropical forests and endangered species habitats. In fact, we discovered that the current certified palm oil demand is almost fully supplied by those bases and concessions that, in less than three decades, replaced some of the most diverse tropical forests of the world and habitats of big mammals threatened by extinction”.

The new evidence from this study proved that certification schemes claim for the “sustainable” production of palm oil just because they neglect a very recent past of deforestation and habitat degradation. In fact, Cazzolla Gatti and Velichevskaya estimated that, in Borneo and Sumatra, more than 75% of all the current RSPO Members’ Concessions took the place of the 1990s habitats of endangered large mammal species. Of the current 27 RSPO certified supply bases in the Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan), 23 are located in an area that was orangutans habitat up to 1999, the study found out. Yet, 3 of these 27 RSPO certified supply bases were still fully covered by tropical forests up to 2003-2008 before being quickly logged, transformed in oil palm plantations, and then certified as “sustainable”. In Sumatra, the authors detected that of the current 51 RSPO certified supply bases, 9 are located in Sumatran elephant 1985 habitat, 11 in Sumatran tiger 1990 habitat, and 3 are located in Sumatran rhinoceros 1991 habitat. Moreover, of the current 173 RSPO-certified concessions in the Malaysian Borneo, 131 are located in an area that was orangutans habitat up to 1989 and 35 in that up to 1999.  

The study also provides a time-series analysis of high-resolution satellite images (with 11-page supplementary figures showing the pattern from an intact forest through deforestation to a “sustainable” plantation in each certified concession and base), which revealed that the area covered by forest in 1984 in the current RSPO certified supply basis and concessions was significantly reduced up to 2020. “Currently, only patched and highly disturbed forests remain in certified bases and concessions – said Prof. Cazzolla Gatti – We discovered that about half of Sumatran and the almost totality of Bornean certified supply bases were completely covered by tropical forests still in the 1980s, before being converted in oil palm plantations from in the 1990s and, then, receive the “sustainability” label in the 2000s, whereas almost no forest remains now in 2020”.

“These results – suggest the study – providing evidence that higher portions of endangered large mammals habitat (like that of Bornean orangutan and Sumatran tiger, rhino, and elephant) and almost intact tropical forests were depleted in very recent times (<30 years) to leave space for oil palm plantations, clearly show that certification does not ensure ‘environmental sustainability’ of palm oil production. In fact, these biodiverse forests inhabited by endangered big mammals, a few years after their replacement with oil palm plantations, were unreasonably certified as ‘sustainable’.” “It seems meaningless – stress the authors in the conclusions of their scientific paper – to label as ‘sustainable’ a plantation only considering what it is at the time of certification, ignoring recent-time impacts on wildlife and the environment. In this way, every area that was a forest just ‘yesterday’, and is logged ‘today’, can become a sustainable plantation ‘tomorrow or the day after’, replacing habitats and forests that seem easy to forget and trace back to once disappeared.”

“What we fear – conclude Prof. Roberto Cazzolla Gatti – is that labelling part of palm oil production as ‘sustainable’, against the evidence showed in this study, will just continue to reassure public opinion’s concern and allow the certification of other areas that were naturally forested just a few years before, as the demand increases. The ‘sustainability’ of palm oil, in the light of the findings we advanced in 2019 and confirmed with this new highly detailed study, seems just an illusion that could facilitate, with certification, the expansion of oil palm plantations all over the tropical world and its global trade. Satellite images cannot lie and what we show – without any doubt – is that certifications do not stop, but just dangerously covers, habitat and forest destruction”.

More information: Cazzolla Gatti R., Velichevskaya A. Certified “sustainable” palm oil took the place of endangered Bornean and Sumatran large mammals habitat and tropical forests in the last 30 years, Science of the Total Environment, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.140712

Press Office, Tomsk State University, Russia