PNAS report: Effect of oil palm sustainability certification on deforestation and fire in Indonesia (2017)

Harvesting palm oil © Jonathan Perugia for Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil

Demand for agricultural commodities is the main cause of tropical deforestation. Commitments to purchase or produce only sustainable palm oil to eliminate forest loss are increasing amongst corporations and the public sector. To do so, those often recur to procurement policies that include sustainability certification as a tool to fulfil their pledges. However, the effect of certification on deforestation in oil palm plantations remains unclear.

This paper, published by PNAS, tries to tackle this issue by evaluating the causal impact of oil palm sustainability certification on deforestation, peatland development, and fire activity in Indonesia from 2001 to 2015.  The paper focuses on oil palm sustainable plantations certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), who certified around 20% of global palm oil production in 2017.  

The methods include the construction of a comprehensive dataset considering RSPO-certified and noncertified oil palm plantations (~188,000 km2) in Indonesia.  Moreover, annual satellite data products within the plantations were used to track the occurrence of fire, loss of primary forest, peatland forest and forest areas with more than 90% of canopy cover. Resultant satellite-based estimates of tree cover loss were statistically analysed to show the causal impact of certification on deforestation.

The main findings of the report include:

  • “Certification reduced deforestation rates by 33%, from a counterfactual mean of 9.8 to 6.6% y−1”.
  • “RSPO certification reduced deforestation in high tree cover areas and primary forests compared with similar noncertified plantations”.
  • “RSPO certification appears to be at least as effective as similar certification systems at reducing deforestation”.
  • “The significant impact of certification on deforestation in Kalimantan, but not Sumatra, suggests that the context in which certification occurs matters”.

The article highlights the following conclusions and recommendations:

  • “RSPO certification provides an indicator to guide customers toward palm oil purchases associated with lower recent loss of high tree cover and primary forests, as well as fire incidence”.
  • “The finding that certification leads to 33% reduced deforestation is similar to research in the logging, timber plantation, and coffee sectors that found significant reductions in deforestation of 2–25% due to third-party certification”.
  • “Our research indicates that palm oil producers currently have few incentives to expand the area of forest under their control. […] Positive incentives for forest protection, such as a price premium linked to forest conservation, may increase forest area preserved through certification”.

To read the original, full report, click here.

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Posted on 18/01/2018