Palm oil companies agree to a moratorium on deforestation

palm oil plantation
© K Martinko

They're only doing it while waiting for a study to be conducted, but this is still very good news from an industry that's responsible for tremendous destruction.

Some good news has finally emerged from the usually destructive palm oil industry. Five of the world’s largest palm oil producers and traders have agreed to halt temporarily all further clearance of critical forest areas within their palm oil plantations. The pause on clearance will last for 12 months, while environmentalists and ecologists carry out a High Carbon Stock (HCS) Study. The study will assess greenhouse gas emissions and socio-economic considerations to guide future decisions on land conversion.

‘High Carbon Stock’ is a term frequently used in the palm oil industry to define the amount of carbon stored in a given area of land based on the density and type of vegetation cover. A piece of land's rating is also affected by biodiversity, carbon conservation, and social implications. The HCS approach is meant to identify degraded lands on which it is possible to expand oil palm plantations without disrupting the environment too much, thereby reducing the plantations’ impact on climate and deforestation. (See this document from Greenpeace for more information on HCS.)

Despite the fact that this particular HCS study is funded by the five palm oil companies – Asian Agri, IOI Corporation Berhad, Kuala Lumpur Kepong Berhad, Musim Mas Group, and Sime Darby Plantation – lead researcher and forest ecologist Dr. John Raison says that the study is well-resourced and fully independent:

“It will extend earlier HCS work to provide more reliable estimates of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) emissions from both biomass and soils resulting from the establishment as well as on-going management of oil palm plantations. It will also examine the socio-economic implications of setting varying thresholds for acceptable GHG emissions in different locations.”

These five companies, which signed on the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto in July 2014, succumbed to pressure from environmental groups to do more than just sit and talk about sustainability. This study is evidence of real efforts being made, although, as RAN spokeswoman Gemma Tillack stated in a press release, simply pausing deforestation isn’t enough: “[These companies] need to adopt policies in line with leading industry benchmarks and convince their suppliers to do the same.”

The temporary moratorium on forest clearance is a step in the right direction, but much depends on the outcome of the HCS study and whether it’s able to halt deforestation and the further expansion of oil palm plantations permanently.

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