Malaysian forests destroyed for palm oil

Feb 03, 2011 12:00 AM

Massive draining of Malaysia's peat swamp forests for palm oil production could lead to the complete loss of forests in the state of Sarawak by the end of this decade, a study warns. The study shows that from 2005-10, almost 10 % of Sarawak's forests and 33 % of its peat swamp forests were cleared, 65 % of which was for palm oil production. For the rest of Asia, the deforestation rate during the same period was approximately 3.5 %.

Commissioned by Netherlands environmental group Wetlands International, the report relied on satellite data analyzed by SarVision, a remote sensing firm also based in the Netherlands. Malaysia, the world's second-largest palm oil producer, accounts for 45 % of the world's palm oil production. Aside from the global increase in demand for vegetable oil, Wetlands International cited initiatives in Europe to increase the use of biofuel for spurring the massive expansion of the plantations. The Malaysian government claims that 8 to 13 % of all Malaysian palm oil plantations are on former peat swamps. In Sarawak, the government estimates that it is 20 %.

The SarVision and Wetlands International studies, however, suggest that 20 % of all Malaysian palm plantations are situated on drained peat swamps and 44 % of Sarawak's palm plantations are on former peat swamp forests.
"Official Malaysian government figures now appear to have given a far too optimistic picture of the situation," the report states.
The report estimates that 1,260,237 acres of peat lands were drained in Malaysia last year for the production of palm oil, leading directly to the release of 20 mm tn of carbon dioxide.
"Free availability of satellite imagery and tools such as Google Earth are revolutionizing forest monitoring," said Niels Wielaard, a senior project manager with SarVision.

In a news release, Wetlands International called for a ban on palm oil production on peatlands and for a halt on further conversion of natural areas for the crop. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak defended the country's sustainable development policies, saying that government policies ensure a balance of taking care of its citizens' needs while conserving forest areas.
"We need to provide space to accommodate a better life for Malaysians but at the same time, areas developed for oil palm cultivation must be based on sustainable development," the prime minister said Saturday, in response to reporters' questions about excessive palm oil production, national news agency Bernama reports.

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