Malaysian palm oil destroying forests, report warns

Feb 02, 2011 12:00 AM

Malaysia, the world's second-largest palm oil producer, is destroying large areas of carbon-rich peat swamp forests to expand plantations, according to a report released recently. The report from Wetlands International said palm oil plantations are being greatly expanded, largely in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo island. Unless the trend is halted, none of these forests will be left by the end of this decade, said Marcel Silvius, a senior scientist at Wetlands International. "As the timber resource has been depleted, the timber companies are now engaging in the oil palm business, completing the annihilation of Sarawak's peat swamp forests," he explained.


The report claims that between 2005 and 2010, almost 353,000 hectares of peat swamp forests were cleared – a third of Malaysia's total – largely for palm oil production. Wetlands International said satellite imagery combined with existing data and field surveys show that deforestation as a result of the practice was now far greater than the government claimed.
"Official Malaysian government figures now appear to have given a far too optimistic picture of the situation," the report states.

The clearing, draining and burning of peat swamp forests is responsible for about 10 % of mankind's greenhouse gas emissions, according to Wetlands International. The report estimated that the 510,000 hectares of peat lands drained for palm oil production in Malaysia last year led directly to the release of 20 mm tn of carbon dioxide. Palm oil firms in Malaysia and Indonesia are under increasing pressure by major Western retailers and consumer goods brands, many of which use palm oil in their products, to halt the expansion of plantations that lead to forest clearance.

Retailers, including Sainsbury's, Tesco and Boots in the UK, have signed up to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and have stepped up plans to buy palm oil from suppliers that have had their plantations certified as sustainable. Some Malaysian palm oil producers have also joined the RSPO, but strong demand from India and China for unsustainable sourced oil means others can avoid doing so without necessarily harming their market share. Wetlands International called for an immediate halt to peat land clearance and an end to incentives for biofuels in the European Union, which it argues contributes to deforestation by increasing demand for crops such as palm oil that can be used to make biofuels.

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