Malaysia rapidly destroying forests for palm oil

Feb 02, 2011 12:00 AM

by: David Fogarty

Malaysia, the world's second largest palm oil producer, is destroying large areas of carbon-rich peat swamp forests to expand plantations, a leading conservation group said recently. Wetlands International and Dutch remote sensing institute Sarvision said palm oil plantations are being expanded largely in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo island. "Unless this trend is halted, none of these forests will be left at the end of this decade,". A recent report said that between 2005-2010, almost 353,000 hectares (883,000 acres) of species-rich, peat swamp forests were opened up largely for palm oil production.
"In just 5 years time, almost 10 % of all Sarawak's forests and 33 % of the peatswamp forests have been cleared. Of this, 65 % was for palm oil conversion," said the report, which cited a lack of verifiable government figures on land use in relation to soil type or deforestation.

Palm oil firms in Malaysia and Indonesia are under increasing pressure by major Western buyers to halt expansion through forest clearance. But India and China remain top buyers of the oil for cooking, biscuits, cosmetics and biofuels. Malaysia produces about 45 % of the world's palm oil.

Challenging official figures.
The report said official Malaysian government figures stated that only 8 to 13 % of Malaysia's palm oil plantations were on carbon rich peat soils, with 20 % for Sarawak. Wetlands International and Sarvision said they used satellite images combined with existing data and field surveys to challenge the official figures. "The new studies conclude that 20 % of all Malaysian palm oil is produced on drained peat lands. For Sarawak, this is even 44 %. For new plantations, the percentage on forested peat swamps is even higher."
Government officials weren't immediately available to comment on the report, which also cited the threat to rare species such as the Borneo pygmy elephant, Sumatran rhino and Borneo clouded leopard.

Deforestation and particularly clearing, draining and burning of deep peat swamp forests is responsible for about 10 % of mankind's greenhouse gas emissions. Neighbouring Indonesia has come under intense international pressure to halt the destruction of peat swamps in the fight against climate change. Wetlands and estimated that the 510,000 ha of peat lands in Malaysia drained for palm oil production led to the release of 20 mm Mtn of carbon dioxide annually. The group called for an immediate halt to peat land clearance and an end to incentives for biofuels in the European Union.

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