The missing piece in sustainable palm oil - an exit strategy

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While stopping deforestation and new peat conversion is definitely part of the sustainability challenge for oil palm, who is working on an exit strategy from the millions of hectares of peatland already converted?

In 25+ years so many of these areas will be flooded[1]. Thousands of smallholders are producing oil palm on these lands (as well as plantations of oil palm and pulp and paper). What is the plan?

Focusing on ‘100% certified palm oil’ is understandable, but misses this critical part of the sustainability challenge for peatlands and smallholders.

The problem?

There is significant global action on government and private sector commitments to reducing deforestation. Yet in Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, between 2006 and 2010, GHG emissions in the oil palm sector were greater from degrading peatlands than from deforestation[2].  

Tropical peatlands are the largest carbon stores in the word. They accumulated organic material (carbon) – trees, roots, leaves, branches, over hundreds of thousands, millions of years, and hold vast amounts of water (like a sponge).

The water is drained from peatlands to enable oil palm (and other trees like acacia) to grow. The peat degrades when the water is drained - the soil is exposed to air which oxidises the carbon creating GHG emissions. The soil being drained and oxidised starts to compact and the land sinks. The GHG emissions from continue day in day out, for as long as the peat is drained. The drainage means the peat dries so it also becomes highly flammable producing yet more GHG emissions when it burns.  

This sinking peat land, is affecting yields of oil palm now but will in the future lead to a situation where oil palm can no longer grow because the land has sunk so much that it cannot be drained anymore (oil palm doesn’t grow well with waterlogged feet).

While there are no exact number of smallholders on peatlands, estimates suggest they range from 13% to over 90% of the oil palm planted on peat in some key districts of Indonesia – which could translate into tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of farmers affected across the country. In one area of Indonesia in Riau (the province with the largest area of peat and largest concentration of smallholders) - recent analysis estimates that in 25-50 years up to 89% of smallholder oil palm areas will be subject to frequent flooding and suffer from impeded drainability, this timeframe is equivalent to only 1 or 2 crop rotations; the same study also identifies the risks for private business: up to 96% of the area of industrial oil palm plantations and up to 91% of all industrial acacia plantations will also be affected.

The sinking land is already identifiable in the field by the bulging lower trunks of palm trees, leaning and fallen palms. Unmanaged water tables mean the soil that is flooding/waterlogged in part of the year and then dry for long periods. This, along with other practices mean that yields in such areas are very low with some areas at only a quarter of the average smallholder yields (4t/ha/yr of fresh fruit bunches compared to averages of around 16t /ha/yr).

The solution?

Effective water management of these peat areas is the critical in the short term to both GHG saving and to minimising subsidence and supporting consistent yields and incomes for smallholders. But improving water management is not a farm-by-farm approach it is required across peat-scapes and requires investment in infrastructure (dams, gates etc.) as well as organizational/governance structures to monitor and manage the water levels.

But it is not a solution for oil palm either. Draining peat is a race against time - water table management only reduces the rate of subsidence it does not stop it happening. Over the longer term there will be a need to transition to suitable (economically attractive) alternatives in the future when the land starts to flood. Without this, farmers in peatlands, dependent on oil palm, risk losing their livelihoods.

Rather than only focus on certification, those demanding sustainable oil palm also need to support plans and investments for future diversification to sustain livelihoods and reduce GHG emissions on peatlands.


[2] Agus, F., Gunarso, P., Heru Sahardjo, B., Harris, N., van Noordwijk, M. and Killeen, T.J. (2013) Historical CO2 emissions from land use and land cover change from the oil palm Industry in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. Technical Report from RSPO Greenhouse Gas Working Group 2. Pp 65-87.