Most palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. Photo credit: Achmad Rabin Taim/Wikimedia Commons
Most palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. Photo credit: Achmad Rabin Taim/Wikimedia Commons

Palm oil, the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world, is produced across a whopping 17 million hectares worldwide, an area larger than Uruguay. Most oil palm comes from Indonesia and Malaysia, with production increasing in Central Africa and Latin America. But exactly where this oil palm is being grown—and more importantly, how it’s being produced—is difficult to determine from the perspective of a corporate buyer. While some oil palm is grown sustainably, other plantations clear-cut forest and degrade ecosystems.

A new initiative from WRI and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) aims to shed light on how individual oil palm concessions affect forests, information that can empower companies to manage their forests and supply chains more sustainably. Global Forest Watch Commodities (GFW-Commodities), a new platform produced by WRI and more than 40 partners, combines the RSPO’s maps of certified sustainable palm oil production sites with global forest data like tree cover loss alerts, locations of primary forests, and legal land classifications. Armed with GFW-Commodities, the new RSPO maps, and knowledge of their supply chains, companies can reduce the risk that the palm oil they purchase contributes to deforestation.

A Need for Sustainable Palm Oil

Palm oil production has increased tremendously in recent years. The substance can now be found in a dizzying array of products, from dish soap to lipstick to muffins. While agricultural production of oil palm has helped boost economies and brought income and employment to poverty-stricken communities, it’s come at a cost.

Road Test GFW-Commodities

Global Forest Watch – Commodities is a freely available online platform that provides practical analysis of forests in commodity supply chains when and where companies need it. The beta version is open for road testing and will formally launch later this year. Visit our website to learn more.

Palm oil development has devastated significant areas of the world’s tropical forests, especially in Southeast Asia. Besides driving deforestation, unsustainable palm oil production can disenfranchise indigenous and local communities, generate waste, degrade air and water quality, and drain soil fertility.

The RSPO was established in 2004 to develop a standard for the production and trade of sustainable palm oil that doesn’t contribute to significant deforestation, environmental harm, or social conflict. In 2013, 9.7 million metric tons of RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil were produced, representing about 18 percent of global palm oil production. RSPO membership today includes nearly 1,500 companies and organizations including palm oil growers, as well as traders, processors, consumer goods manufacturers, retailers, banks, NGOs (including WRI), government agencies, and more. Lively debate among stakeholders within and outside the RSPO fosters innovation and continuous improvement of the standard.

Why Is the New RSPO Data So Important?

Good maps and information about who manages forest land can be notoriously difficult to come by. Information—especially about who has been granted licenses to develop palm oil, timber, and other commodities on forest land—is either not generated in a consistent way or is closely guarded by those who have it. WRI analysis has shown that companies, communities, NGOs, governments, and even different levels of government often have different information about forest use. For example, while the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry provides some information on where oil palm concessions are operating in the country, this information is not up-to-date. So when forest fires flared earlier this year, it was difficult to accurately identify the landholders responsible for the burning. Malaysia makes no information about palm oil concessions public.

RSPO’s new maps—combined with Global Forest Watch’s near-real time deforestation alerts and other information—provides a much-needed level of transparency when it comes to the palm oil sector. This transparency can benefit businesses, civil society groups, and other forest stakeholders.

An increasing number of palm oil buyers have committed to “deforestation-free” supply chains, such as Unilever, Nestlé, and Mars. With RSPO data on GFW-Commodities, these companies can now verify and credibly demonstrate to their customers that the RSPO products they source meet sustainability standards. Civil society groups, consumers, and other stakeholders can act as watchdogs and use GFW-Commodities to hold companies accountable if their palm oil suppliers do degrade forest landscapes. The data can also help the RSPO itself more efficiently evaluate and respond to complaints lodged against certified members.

For example, in 2005, several organizations filed complaints against RSPO member Herakles Farms/SGSOC palm oil plantation, alleging that the proposed plantation would be built in an area of high-conservation value in Cameroon. RSPO officials and members then needed to spend several months and significant amounts of money investigating the claim before the company finally resigned membership. With GFW-Commodities, RSPO officials or members can easily zoom in on the 30,000-hectare farm in Cameroon, verify that it overlaps with areas of intact forests and is surrounded by protected forests, and see strong evidence of land-clearing (see screenshots below)—all within a few minutes. While on-the-ground audits remain the gold standard for these investigations, GFW-Commodities can help officials use their limited resources effectively. RSPO officials can also sign up to receive tree cover loss alerts in any area they choose.

Where Do We Go from Here?

RSPO’s data release is transformative, but it still represents just the tip of the information iceberg—even in the palm oil sector. For one thing, the maps, which show RSPO-certified areas as of May 2013, will need to be consistently updated and standardized.

The RSPO data is also limited to areas that have undergone certification. Over the coming months, we’re hoping to add more data to the GFW-Commodities platform, including:

  • Maps from all RSPO Members: While RSPO member organizations represent a very significant portion of worldwide palm oil production, not all members’ concessions are certified. Deforestation is likely a larger issue in non-certified areas. WRI, the Zoological Society of London, the Sumatran Orangutan Society, and New Britain Palm Oil Limited recently sponsored a resolution to require all RSPO member companies to submit complete maps of all their growing operations, whether certified or not. These maps are due to the RSPO by September 2014, and we expect to publish them through GFW-Commodities.

  • Maps from Smallholder Producers: The new RSPO maps only account for about 70 percent of the total estimated certified sustainable palm oil produced. Much of this gap is likely filled by production from associated smallholder producers not under the direct control of RSPO member companies.

  • Maps of Other Forest Commodities: Palm oil is just one crop out of many that put pressure on the world’s forests. We hope the palm oil sector will demonstrate how transparency can support the objectives of governments, civil society organizations, and companies and encourage sectors like soy, beef, and wood pulp to make their maps publicly accessible.

  • From Transparency to Sustainability: Transparency is all about trust. The disclosure of these maps help us understand where palm oil is being produced and by whom. This then enables us to further investigate how it is being produced and whether production is consistent with commitments that have been made. We are building analytical functionality into Global Forest Watch Commodities to support this kind of assessment.

There is still a long way to go to make oil palm a truly sustainable crop across the world. But the steps taken by the RSPO to release concession data bodes well for the future. As more and more companies heed the call for transparency, we can look forward to a data-rich future with greater accountability, and hopefully, great sustainability.