Peatland plantations drive steep GHG gas emissions in Indonesia's Riau Province
Versatile is the best way to describe the reddish brown fruit born from oil palm trees. Both the flesh and seed of the fruit is used in many applications including cooking, cosmetics, and biofuel. In addition, the fruit is composed of 50 percent oil, making it a highly efficient product that requires less land than other oil producing crops.
Palm oil is cultivated in the tropical regions of Asia, Africa, and South America. However, 85 percent of global production comes from Malaysia and Indonesia. The rural regions of these countries strongly benefit from a commodity that is in high demand as a raw material or as an edible ingredient.
Indonesia produced 9 million tons of palm oil in 2011, making it the world’s largest producer. The country aims to double production over the next decade by expanding production from its tropical forests to peatlands, located closer to coastlines. The impact of this shift is expected to be substantial, as shown by recent research that assessed greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from oil palm expansion in Riau Province, on the island of Sumatra.
Unlike other scientists’ research into GHG emissions from palm oil, graduate researchers Fatwa Ramdani and Masteru Hino of Tohoku University in Japan, looked into emissions on a provincial scale as opposed to an Indonesia-wide scale. They found that palm oil expansion in Riau resulted in an average of 5.2 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year from 2000 and 2012. Nearly 70 percent of the emissions resulted from plantations on peat soils.
In contrast, 60 percent GHG emissions from plantations in the 1990’s resulted from conversion of forests. The results indicate that carbon-dense peatlands have been increasingly targeted by the palm oil industry in Riau, raising further questions about the industry’s sustainability.
"High demand for oil palm and little government management is driving plantation expansion at an unsustainable rate,"said Ramdani. "Indonesia needs to explore sustainable development of oil palm plantations to protect biodiversity, its local economies and to reduce GHG."
The importance of peatlands
While both tropical forests and peatlands provide many important ecosystem services such as a refuge for biodiversity, the provision of clean air and water, and carbon sequestration, peatlands are the undisputed champion of carbon storage.
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Oil palm plantation image via Shutterstock.