Charred tree stumps against the smoldering background in an area of recently deforested peatland near Tanjung Baru village, Pangkalan Kerinci subdistrict in Pelalawan regency, Riau province, Indonesia, 29 June 2013. The village lies beside PT. Pusaka Megah Bumi Nusantara (PMBN) – a palm oil company belonging to the Asian Agri group, a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This area, according to the most recent official charts, is covered by the Indonesia government's moratorium on the issuance of new permits in primary forests and peatlands.Thousands of peatland fires in the province - the majority within pulp and palm oil concessions - have caused record-breaking air pollution in Singapore and Malaysia, with the haze extending as far as Thailand. Photo: Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace

By Rhett A. Butler
3 September 2013

(mongabay.com) – Conversion of forests for palm oil production now appears to be the single largest driver of deforestation in Indonesia, accounting for roughly a quarter of forest loss between 2009 and 2011, asserts a new Greenpeace report that accuses the sector's main certification standard of failing to stop forest destruction.

The report, titled Certifying Destruction, uses satellite imagery, government concession data, field investigations, and third party analysis to conclude that several recent and current members of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) — the industry's chief eco-certification body — are continuing to buy or trade palm oil produced via the conversion of rainforests and carbon-dense peatlands in the Southeast Asian nation.

"The RSPO wants its members to be industry leaders in sustainability, but its current standards leave them free to destroy forests and drain peatland," said Bustar Maitar, head of Greenpeace International’s Indonesia forest campaign, in a statement. "Year after year, Indonesia’s forest fires and haze wreak havoc on the region, and the palm oil sector is a main culprit."

Analyzing satellite data, Greenpeace finds that some 300,000 hectares of forest were cleared for oil palm plantations between 2009 and 2011, accounting for nearly 25 percent of the 1.24 million hectares of forest the Indonesian government says were cleared during the two-year period. Deforestation for oil palm plantations was disproportionately high in three provinces in Indonesia Borneo: West Kalimantan (75 percent of total deforestation was attributed to palm oil), East Kalimantan (55 percent), and Central Kalimantan (38 percent).

Worryingly for environmentalists, Greenpeace's report suggests that RSPO member companies are falling short of the initiative's goals. Notably, RSPO-certified companies continue to clear forest and peatlands for new plantations. And during the ongoing haze crisis, a large number of hotspots have been detected within their concessions.

"In 2009, identified oil palm concessions currently affiliated to members of the RSPO held 14% of the natural forest within Indonesian oil palm concessions. However, these concessions accounted for a disproportionate 21% of deforestation in oil palm concessions – 63,000 hectares, including nearly 20,000 hectares of carbon-rich forested peatland," states the report. "Genting, Surya Dumai, and Wilmar were the three privately-owned RSPO members with the largest areas of identified deforestation."

"Concessions affiliated with RSPO members accounted for 39% of the fire hotspots on palm oil concessions in Riau during January-June 2013 – a total of 720 hotspots in RSPO-related concessions."

The problem, says the activist group, is that while RSPO criteria prohibit conversion of old-growth and "high conservation value" (HCV) forest, they do not exclude clearing of secondary forests and peatlands for plantations. Because these areas lock large amounts of carbon in their soils, clearing vegetation and draining the water table can trigger substantial emissions. The RSPO sets no limits of emissions from palm oil production — emissions reporting is strictly voluntary.

"RSPO rules fail to prevent peatland and forest fires," states the report. "The RSPO bans deliberate use of fire for land clearance, but it has failed to address the source of devastating fires in Sumatra in June 2013. The RSPO allows its members to clear rainforest and to clear and drain peatland. Drained peat is like a tinderbox: once dry, the dense, carbon-rich soil catches fire easily; once lit, it can spread rapidly." [more]

Palm oil now biggest cause of deforestation in Indonesia

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