Degraded Land, Sustainable Palm Oil, and Indonesia’s Future

A new policy to develop oil palm on degraded land could protect Indonesia’s forests. But what does “degraded” really mean?

In May 2010, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared a policy to develop oil palm plantations on “degraded land” instead of forest or peatland. As part of national REDD+ strategy to be developed under a groundbreaking $1 billion partnership with Norway, this policy has the potential to allow the palm oil industry to continue to expand—generating profits, government revenues, and jobs—while reducing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

Although questions remain regarding the details of Indonesia’s strategy to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), the Indonesian government has recently suggested that there are 6 million hectares of degraded land (an area larger than the Indonesian province of Aceh) that could be used for oil palm expansion—enough to achieve the country’s national target of doubling palm oil production by 2020 without additional deforestation.

Whether the expansion of oil palm plantations on degraded land is sustainable will depend largely on how important details—such as the meaning of “degraded”—are addressed during implementation.

Debating Definitions: What is “Degraded Land?”

Past estimates of the extent of degraded land in Indonesia have ranged widely—from 12 to 74 million hectares—as some studies have used definitions limited to biophysical characteristics such as tree canopy cover while others have included social or economic considerations.

A degraded land policy designed to reduce emissions from deforestation should consider a “forest carbon” perspective—in other words, the use of degraded land for oil palm plantations should not lead to significant carbon emissions. Such degraded lands, for example, could be areas that were cleared of forests long ago and that now contain low carbon stocks and low levels of biodiversity, such as alang alang grasslands. In this sense, degraded land would have low standing biomass, low below-ground carbon storage and low forest regeneration potential.

Both industry and civil society groups are concerned that the location and status of the “degraded” areas referred to by the partnership—particularly from a social and legal standpoint—are unclear. Meanwhile, REDD+ policy-makers and environmental NGOs are concerned that allowing the conversion of “degraded” secondary forests could result in significant carbon emissions as well as lost “co-benefits” such as biodiversity preservation.

In addition, there is a significant and growing consensus—as reflected by growing industry participation in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and in recent government statements—regarding the need to balance environmental, economic, and social concerns in order to ensure that the expansion of oil palm plantations is truly “sustainable.” This would include, but would not be limited to, whether an area is degraded from a forest carbon perspective.

A major challenge facing national REDD+ policy-makers and decision-makers at all levels is a lack of a common methodology—and the associated accurate and up-to-date spatial data—for identifying acceptable areas for sustainable oil palm plantation expansion.

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