Plantations seen behind more than half Malaysian Borneo deforestation

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Palm oil and pulp wood companies are responsible for more than half of the rapid deforestation in the Malaysian part of Borneo island, an environmental scientist said in an interview.

David Gaveau, of the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), used satellite images and data on concessions from more than four decades to determine how fast deforested land was converted into industrial plantations on Borneo.

“The faster the conversion, the more likely that the lands were cleared by plantation companies,” Gaveau told Reuters in an interview on Monday.

Just half of Borneo - which is shared by Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia - is now covered by forests compared with 76 percent in 1973, Gaveau said.

The findings by Gaveau and his group are likely to compound criticism of the palm oil industry in particular, which has faced condemnation for its land-clearing by burning and resulting smoke across Southeast Asia every year.

Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia are the world’s top two producers of palm oil, a widely used edible oil found in everything from cookies to soaps. Both countries are also major producers of timber and timber products.

Plantations operating on both the Malaysian and Indonesian parts of Borneo have come under scrutiny over the clearing of forest, which has also resulted in a dramatic loss of habitat for wildlife including orangutans.

“By and large, we can say that the oil palm industry has always been the major driver of deforestation,” Gaveau said.

But the link between plantations and deforestation was much more stark in Malaysian Borneo, Gaveau said.

Malaysia lost 4.2 million hectares, or 28 percent, of its original forest cover on Borneo between 1973 and 2015, and up to 60 percent of the cleared land was rapidly converted to plantations, Gaveau said.

At the end of 2015, Malaysia had about 10.8 million hectares still covered by forest on Borneo, he said.

But in Kalimantan, on the Indonesian side of Borneo, only about 16 percent of cleared land was rapidly turned into plantations, he said.

“Most of the plantations in Kalimantan were developed either on land that were cleared much earlier, or in forest areas that had been degraded by recurring fires brought on by droughts,” Gaveau said.

“But plantations on the Malaysian side have always expanded into forested areas and this has been constant over the past forty years.”

However, he said, Indonesian palm oil plantations were rapidly catching up with Malaysia, clearing swathes of Borneo forest from 2005, following a palm-oil market boom.

Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Robert Birsel