Malaysia rapidly destroying forests for palm oil: group

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia, the world’s second largest palm oil producer, is destroying large areas of carbon-rich peatswamp forests to expand plantations, a leading conservation group said on Tuesday.

Oil palm fruits are gathered on a deck before being collected for process, near Kinabatangan river in Malaysia's state of Sabah on the Borneo island February 19, 2009. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

Wetlands International and Dutch remote sensing institute Sarvision said palm oil plantations are being expanded largely in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo island.

“Unless this trend is halted, none of these forests will be left at the end of this decade,” said the report released on Tuesday.

It said between 2005-2010, almost 353,000 hectares (883,000 acres) of species-rich, peatswamp forests were opened up largely for palm oil production.

“In just 5 years time, almost 10 percent of all Sarawak’s forests and 33 percent of the peatswamp forests have been cleared. Of this, 65 percent was for palm oil conversion,” said the report, which cited a lack of verifiable government figures on land use in relation to soil type or deforestation.

Palm oil firms in Malaysia and Indonesia are under increasing pressure by major Western buyers to halt expansion through forest clearance. But India and China remain top buyers of the oil for cooking, biscuits, cosmetics and biofuels. Malaysia produces about 45 percent of the world’s palm oil.


The report said official Malaysian government figures stated that only 8 to 13 percent of Malaysia’s palm oil plantations were on carbon rich peat soils, with 20 percent for Sarawak.

Wetlands International and Sarvision said they used satellite images combined with existing data and field surveys to challenge the official figures.

“The new studies conclude that 20 percent of all Malaysian palm oil is produced on drained peatlands. For Sarawak, this is even 44 percent. For new plantations, the percentage on forested peatswamps is even higher.”

Government officials weren’t immediately available to comment on the report, which also cited the threat to rare species such as the Borneo pygmy elephant, Sumatran rhino and Borneo clouded leopard.

Deforestation and particularly clearing, draining and burning of deep peatswamp forests is responsible for about 10 percent of mankind’s greenhouse gas emissions. Neighboring Indonesia has come under intense international pressure to halt the destruction of peatswamps in the fight against climate change.

Wetlands and estimated that the 510,000 ha of peatlands in Malaysia drained for palm oil production led to the release of 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.

The group called for an immediate halt to peatland clearance and an end to incentives for biofuels in the European Union.

Reporting by David Fogarty; Editing by Niluksi Koswanage