White paper

Historical Analysis and Projection of Oil Palm Plantation Expansion on Peatland in Southeast Asia

This study demonstrates that the area of industrial oil palm (OP) plantations in the peatlands of insular Southeast Asia (Malaysia and Indonesia, except the Papua Provinces) has increased drastically over the past 20 years. From a small area in 1990 to at least 2.15 million hectares in 2010, expansion has affected every region of Malaysia and Indonesia reviewed here. Oil palm development on peat started in Peninsular Malaysia, spread to Sarawak and Sumatra, and is now picking up speed in Kalimantan. Over each time interval included in the analysis (1990 to 2010, 2000 to 2010, and 2007 to 2010), OP expansion accelerated in all the areas considered, except those where peatland was limited.

The 2010 extent of OP plantations on peatland may nearly double to 4.1 Mha by 2020, according to both a linear approach that projects recent trends into the future and a conservative non-linear approach that takes into account long-term trend changes since 1990. Very recent trend changes, such as the rapid acceleration in OP expansion over 2007 to 2010, might bring the OP area by 2020 to 6.2 Mha. The lowest projection of OP area by 2030 is 6 Mha.

Researchers have investigated whether expanding OP plantations on peat in Indonesia would be constrained by local regulations. The constraints tested were a) the total extent of peatland, b) the extent of peat less than 2 m thick, and c) the extent of peat where current land allocation zoning allows conversion to peatland. The investigators also considered whether competing agricultural uses of peatland could limit OP expansion. The findings indicate that none of these factors would limit OP expansion up to 2030 in most areas reviewed, and that a possible slowdown in districts where a “shortage” of peatland may occur could easily be offset by a further acceleration in other regions. We therefore conclude that projected OP expansion may indeed become reality.

This analysis does not take into account developments in global demand for palm oil or possible policy changes in response to concerns regarding the environmental implications of peatland deforestation and drainage.

The peer reviewed partner paper to this report is available from Global Change Biology: Bioenergy.