‘Meaningless certification’: Study makes the case against ‘sustainable’ palm oil

‘Meaningless certification’: Study makes the case against ‘sustainable’ palm oil

JAKARTA — A new study on certified oil palm plantations and their links to past deforestation has sparked a debate over whether they can be considered sustainable if they’re established on once-forested land.

The study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, analyzed highly detailed satellite images from 1984, the oldest available, to 2020. It covered all 78 plantations in Indonesia and 173 in Malaysian Borneo that have been certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the world’s largest association for ethical palm oil production.

The researchers overlaid the maps of these certified plantations with the distribution ranges of endangered large mammals to see where they overlapped. They also calculated the extent of tropical forest that was replaced by certified palm oil production during that period.

They found that some certified oil palm concessions and supply bases had indeed replaced the habitats of endangered mammals and biodiverse tropical forests of Borneo and Sumatra over the last few decades.

“Moreover, we discovered that currently certified oil palm plantations are located in the 1990s endangered large mammals habitat such as rhinos, tigers, orangutans and elephants,” study co-author Roberto Cazzolla Gatti, an associate professor at Tomsk State University in Russia, told Mongabay.

According to the study, about 75% of RSPO concessions and supply bases are located in areas that have been deforested and/or where endangered large mammals lived just during the last 30 years. It found that 49% of Sumatran and 99% of Bornean certified supply bases were completely covered by tropical forests between 1984 and 1990, before being converted into oil palm plantations from 1990 to 2000.

These plantations were later certified in the 2000s. By 2020, almost no forests remain standing in the plantation areas, with only patched and highly disturbed forests remaining in certified bases and concessions. In Malaysian Borneo, of the 470,000 hectares (1.16 million acres) of plantations in the 173 RSPO-certified concessions, an area half the size of Puerto Rico, only 3,300 hectares (8,154 acres) of fragmented rainforests remain today — one-fifth the size of Washington D.C.

The study found that 85% of certified supply bases in Borneo were still forests inhabited by orangutans in 1999, and 5-18% of those in Sumatra were still inhabited by tigers, rhinos and elephants between 1985 and 1991.

“This means that the establishment of the sustainable plantations, after [legal or illegal] forest logging, occurred no more than 30 years ago,” Cazzolla Gatti said. “Despite a recent past of habitat degradation, they are certified with a ‘sustainability’ label.”

The new study is a follow-up to Cazzolla Gatti’s previous study that looked at forest cover loss in 2,210 certified concessions from 2001 to 2016. That 2019 study found that during this period, total tree loss in Indonesian oil palm concessions was equivalent to 34.2% of the area covered by the plantations. But the loss in certified sustainable plantations was higher: 38.3%.

Cazzolla Gatti’s findings contradict previous research on RSPO certification, which conclude the scheme is effective at reducing deforestation. Cazzolla Gatti said this is because they usually evaluate deforestation in certified plantations that already contain little remaining forest at the start of the study.

To get a fuller picture of the environmental impact of the establishment of oil palm plantations, it’s crucial to consider historical records, at least recent ones, of land use, Cazzolla Gatti said.

“In the case of palm oil sustainability, if you have an already established plantation with small remnants of degraded forests, and you start to certify it on the basis of what the area is in the current time, you will never find signs of environmental impacts later on,” he said.

The new study increases the details of Cazzolla Gatti and his team’s previous research by expanding the time series to the past 36 years and adopting a direct analysis of high-resolution satellite images to evaluate the impact of oil palm expansion on endangered mammals’ habitat and tropical forests of Sumatra and Borneo.

Cazzolla Gatti said palm oil certification schemes like the RSPO can check off a concession as being free of deforestation, even if the land used to be forest, because the RSPO doesn’t take into account the recent past of the plantations it certifies.

“However, in this way every logged area ‘today’ could be certified as a sustainable plantation ‘tomorrow,’ in an infinite loop of meaningless certification,” he said. “This is why we took the historical environmental perspective that RSPO should have followed before certifying as sustainable its supply basis and plantations.”

Another recent analysis by Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, using data from 1990 to 2019, shows that 41% of existing oil palm plantations in Indonesia occupy previously forested areas.

The failure of the RSPO to take into account past deforestation means much of the palm oil products that it certifies as sustainable don’t warrant that label and may mislead consumers, according to Cazzolla Gatti.

“We would never call ‘sustainable’ a house … built on a very biodiverse area within which endangered species lived, which was deforested, even if by other industries, less than three decades ago,” he said. “Why should the palm oil production be?”

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Deforestation for oil palm in Malaysia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


Shortly after the publication of the new study, Cazzolla Gatti said he received a series of attacks through different channels from lobbyists and corporations involved in the palm oil industry. He said there had been two hacking attempts of his Google accounts as well as several messages on Twitter from people working for certification bodies.

Cazzolla Gatti added that a member of a company working for a certifier in Indonesia had also created a fake version of his website that they’re sharing on Twitter. The fake site includes links to campaigns against palm oil, which Cazzolla Gatti said is an attempt to smear him as having a conflict of interest.

The journal that published the study also received messages from a reader alleging that Cazzolla Gatti had undisclosed conflicts of interest.

“Fortunately the journal’s editor confirmed that these allegations are completely unjustified and do not deserve any attention,” he said. “With the help of my institutions, we are collecting evidence of all these attacks and evaluate future actions. However, when you receive this kind of strong personal attacks, this could simply mean that you’ve touched a sensitive and scientifically sound point.”

Cazzolla Gatti said he had also been subject to similar attacks and aggressive complaints by email, phone and social media after the publication of his 2019 study. He called them “annoying,” but added, “we won’t be intimidated.”

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Deforestation for an oil palm plantation in Sabah, Malaysia. Plantations frequently fail to sequester as much carbon as native forests and they devastate biodiversity. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

RSPO responds

In its response, the RSPO effectively confirmed that it doesn’t account for past deforestation when certifying plantations as sustainable.

“These standards are not intended to absolve members of any past issues, rather RSPO seeks to ensure that members implement practices which safeguard the environment, protect human rights, and avoid the recurrence of past problems,” a spokesperson told Mongabay. “Sustainability is a journey, and we believe that if companies are rewarded for improving farming practices that we can transform the production of palm oil, and bring more stakeholders on our collective journey.”

Under the RSPO’s standards, new plantings after November 2005 may not replace primary forest or areas required for management to maintain high conservation value, or HCV, forests.

Cazzolla Gatti said this cutoff date is completely arbitrary and not based on science.

“Nothing of this has to do with real environmental sustainability,” he said. “A forest, a tiger, a rhino, etc. does not care about what RSPO considers sustainable or not.”

In addition, the standards allow for the cutoff date to be moved forward in the future if global demand continues to increase and existing plantations can’t keep pace, Cazzolla Gatti said.

“Finally, who decided that HCV areas logged after November 2005 are worth of protection and cannot be certified as sustainable if replaced but similar HCV areas destroyed before November 2005, for instance between September and October 2005, can be certified by RSPO?” he said. “This is not valid conservation and scientific approach.”

Ecologist Douglas Sheil, from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, said he agreed with the big picture of the study, which is that there has been massive loss of forest and rare species habitats. But despite that, he added, sustainable cultivation of palm oil on converted land is still the way to move forward.

“Shouldn’t we be keen to switch all this converted land to good sustainable use and hold the producers to those standards that have been developed for that?” Sheil told Mongabay. “Isn’t RSPO a positive initiative built on a tragic (historical story)? Does it help anyone to link them [with past deforestation] this way? Can RSPO be responsible for events under a dictatorship decades before?”

The RSPO spokesperson said many of the plantations researched in the study were established prior to the formation of the RSPO in 2004, when there were no industry-driven standards for better regulation of plantation management, or social and environmental protections.

Sheil also questioned the study’s use of the data on the total forest cover lost, including both HCV forests and high carbon stock (HCS) forests, from 1984 as the basis of evaluating RSPO’s performance. It wasn’t until late 2018 that the RSPO started banning new clearing of all peatland and HCS forests. Prior to that, only new development of primary HCV forests was prohibited by the RSPO.

“They have never promised to stop clearing all forests,” Sheil said of the RSPO. “So why is sustainability here based on total forest cover from 1984?”

Cazzolla Gatti said the study used data from 1984 as the baseline because it’s the oldest satellite imagery available.

“Then we analyzed year-by-year the changes in those forests and how they were converted in palm oil plantations,” he said. “Satellite images cannot lie and, at the level of resolution of our study, cannot be misinterpreted.”

But Sheil questioned the accuracy of the spatial data used in the study. The study estimated an accuracy of 99% for Indonesia and 95% for Malaysian Borneo, but Sheil said there’s no way to know that these estimates are true because the researchers don’t provide evidence in the paper.

Cazzolla Gatti said the estimated accuracy is a value that derives from the software used for the analysis, including ArcGIS and Google Earth Pro/Engine. He said the researchers were able to achieve such high accuracy because they used higher-resolution images, allowing them to pinpoint a single oil palm tree and correctly photo-interpret the difference between forests, old plantations and new plantations.

Cazzolla Gatti said the use of higher-resolution images was necessary to ensure that what the researchers were measuring as “tropical forest” (with a conservative canopy cover of greater than 10%) and “oil palm plantations” were not mixed up with other plantations or other non-forest tree cover.

“Therefore, such claims are very weak and unsupported,” he said of criticism about the methodology. “Actually, as everyone can see from the high detail of the sample images for 1984, 2000, 2016 and 2020 for each RSPO supply basis we show in the supplementary figure, the quality of the imagery allows to clearly define the land change from a forest to a plantation.”

Sheil is a co-author of another paper published this year that says palm oil production poses less of a threat to biodiversity than coconut oil production. The paper has been widely criticized for how it arrives at that conclusion and for co-author Erik Meijaard’s funding from the RSPO and an Indonesian palm oil company.

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Sumatran elephants in Indonesia’s Leuser Ecosystem, one of the region’s last great swaths of intact rainforest. Rapid oil palm expansion is eating away at the creatures’ habitat and driving them into increased conflict with humans. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay

Plantation life cycle

While Sheil said the pattern highlighted in the new study is “potentially interesting,” it uses data that “are unreliable and there are nuances here that are being ignored.”

He cited the case of Indonesian Borneo, where much of the planting uses land cleared previously and often burned repeatedly. The RSPO spokesperson echoed that view, saying the study didn’t distinguish between plantations established on forested areas from those established on logged areas (i.e. where there’s been a transfer of ownership), and the regional history of plantation establishment.

Cazzolla Gatti said making such a distinction is precisely what allows a plantation to be certified sustainable even if it was developed at the expense of tropical forests.

He illustrated the typical life cycle of a certified plantation: First, an old-growth tropical forest is cut or burned for pulpwood or logging concessions; then a traditional, non-certified oil palm plantation is started; after a certain time, that traditional plantation is “transformed” into a certified one and wins a sustainability label.

As such, distinguishing between plantations established on forested areas from plantations established on logged areas is “a simple trick to hide the absence of any sustainability,” Cazzolla Gatti said.

“Because it is obvious that before the establishment of a palm oil plantation there is a history of deforestation,” he said. “There is no plantation that can be established on forested areas unless they are heavily logged first. It would be anti-economical and a loss of timber resources to just remove a forest to establish a plantation.”

Because of this, Cazzolla Gatti said palm oil production could never be branded as the first cause of deforestation — but it’s almost always strictly, if not directly, related to deforestation.

Global demand for products like palm oil is responsible for depleting tropical forest cover. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Industry talking point

The argument made by Sheil and the RSPO that palm oil is not a direct cause of deforestation since plantations are established on areas that have already been cleared is also one of the main talking points of proponents of the palm oil industry.

Indonesian Oil Palm Association (GAPKI) chairman Joko Supriyono said more than 70% of oil palm plantations in Indonesia were established on degraded land, including those that used to be rubber plantations, and thus the criticisms levied against the industry aren’t fair.

According to a study by Petrus Gunarso, a member of the Indonesian Forestry Scholars Association (Persaki), looking at satellite images from 1990 to 2012, 43% of plantations in Indonesia are established on abandoned land, 27% on degraded timber concessions, 14% on agricultural land, 13% on industrial plantations, and 3% on timber concessions.

Petrus said degraded forests such as timber concessions are classified as non-forest estates, and thus establishing oil palm oil plantations in these forests doesn’t count as deforestation under Indonesian law.

But just because a forest was logged first before being converted into a plantation still doesn’t mean it’s sustainable, Cazzolla Gatti said.

“The fact that someone else did deforestation just a few years before does not absolve the palm oil plantation’s owner and definitely does not justify a sustainability label by a certification scheme,” he said.

“Those same abandoned lands, which were rich forests, could undergo reforestation instead of palm oil cultivation,” he added. “This would be ‘environmentally sustainable.’”

Elephant, orangutan, and tiger habitat cleared in the Leuser ecosystem for oil palm. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Elephant, orangutan, and tiger habitat cleared in the Leuser ecosystem for oil palm. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Higher yield

Palm oil proponents, however, say cultivating the crop on degraded land is the best use of such land. Oil palms produce nearly 4 tonnes of vegetable oil per hectare, roughly five times, eight times and 10 times more than rapeseed, sunflower and soybean crops, respectively.

And producing oil as efficiently as possible is crucial to meeting the growing global demand for vegetable oil, they say.

Joko of GAPKI said countries that have criticized the palm oil industry, such as members of the European Union, should look into the deforestation caused by their own agricultural expansion long before the 20th-century palm oil boom in Indonesia.

According to a 2018 study, Europe lost more than half of its central and northern forests over the course of 6,000 years due to growing demand for agricultural land and the use of wood fuel.

Cazzolla Gatti, however, said other vegetable oils like olive, rapeseed and sunflower aren’t labeled sustainable the way palm oil is, as they subscribe to the notion that past deforestation should be taken into account in sustainability certification.

Furthermore, there are differences in environmental impact between deforestation in tropical regions and in temperate zones like Europe, he added.

“The difference with the cultivation of oil palms is that they need to be planted in tropical areas very often covered by forests or peatlands, which are inhabited by several thousands of species, already endangered by other anthropogenic impacts, such as logging, poaching, pollution, climate change, etc.,” Cazzolla Gatti said, “instead of the few hundreds living in the temperate land replaced by olive, rapeseed, sunflower, and other oils.”

He also said most of the oil plantations in temperate zones started hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years ago, as in the case of olive oil in Ancient Rome and Greece.

“At that time, and with the need to supply a much lower population, their environmental impact was low,” Cazzolla Gatti said.

He added that while many areas in temperate regions were indeed stripped of their original vegetation and species habitats for farmland, that shouldn’t be used to justify deforestation in other parts of the world today.

“There is no reason to believe that because we made abuses on nature to foster our species’ growth in the past we should allow this in the present and future, in even more threatened and biodiverse places, to sustain production for a human population much bigger,” he said. “We should learn from past mistakes in natural resources management and prevent the extinction of new species, particularly in this biodiversity collapse age, and other forest logging, particularly in this climate change era.”

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A filling station selling biodiesel. Photo by Robert Couse-Baker/flickr.

Future demand

Failing to account for past deforestation allows consumers to believe that a certified sustainable product doesn’t come from a plantation that has replaced forests, whether directly or indirectly, according to Cazzolla Gatti.

This has paved the way for the rapid expansion of the palm oil industry, as consumers don’t feel guilty buying certified palm oil products, driving growing demand for “sustainable” palm oil, he added.

“If RSPO continues to label part of palm oil production as ‘sustainable,’ against the evidence [shown] in our study, they will just continue to reassure public opinion’s concern and allow the certification of other areas that were naturally forested just a few years before as the demand increases,” Cazzolla Gatti said.

But if the RSPO adopts a policy of certifying only those parts of the production that don’t come from recently cleared forests and endangered species habitat, more than 50 years ago at least, there won’t be enough plantations available to supply the global demand for environmentally friendly palm oil.

Only a very few tropical areas in the world would be eligible for sustainable certification if past deforestation is taken into account; and while old-grown and small independent farms can still produce truly sustainable palm oil, they would only be able to keep local trade alive, Cazzolla Gatti added.

“[But] without unjustified claims of sustainability and greenwashing labels, the real environmental impact of the global market of palm oil will become clearer to the public opinion and policymakers,” he said. “And this may be the only action actually able to reduce or even stop habitat degradation and deforestation due to palm oil.”

A 2018 IUCN report, co-authored by Sheil, who is a member of the IUCN oil palm task force, said that replacing the crop with other vegetable oil crops deemed less destructive to the environment would result in even more deforestation as they would require more land to produce the same amount of oil.

Palm oil is currently produced from just 10% of all farmland dedicated to growing oil crops, yet accounts for 35% of the global volume of all vegetable oils. Banning palm oil would therefore shift the damage elsewhere, from Southeast Asia to ecosystems such as the tropical forests and savannas of South America, according to the report.

Cazzolla Gatti said the world might not need the huge volumes of palm oil it currently consumes, as most palm oil isn’t destined for consumer products such as food and cosmetics.

“We do not actually need, even with 9-10 billion people on this planet, such amount of palm oil to produce food and cosmetics,” he said. “The quantity that goes in these products is minimal and related to most of the dangerous ultra-processed food and non-essential cosmetics.”

Most palm oil ends up being refined to make so-called biodiesel, touted as the sustainable alternative to regular diesel. In 2017, more than half of the palm oil imported into the EU, around 4 million tons, was used to make biodiesel.

“The same [parties] who consider sustainable a plantation that recently replaced forests and habitats have worked to convince the world that palm oil can be considered a biofuel even if its environmental impact is almost as dangerous as fossil fuels if we include recent deforestation, species threatened, GHG emissions” — which studies have found are not net zero, as claimed — “use of pesticides, transport, etc.,” Cazzolla Gatti said.

If these factors are taken into account, then biodiesel from food crops emits on average 1.8 times more carbon dioxide than burning fossil fuels, and for biodiesel from palm oil, emissions are three times higher than for fossil fuels, according to one European study.

And the demand for biofuel will continue to grow as various governments have set mandates to increase consumption of biofuels. The Indonesian government, for instance, is targeting the complete phase-out of diesel through increasingly higher blends of palm biodiesel.

A new report by the Rainforest Foundation Norway shows current targets for boosting biofuel production is likely to lead to a massive increase in demand for palm and soy oil by 2030. Under a high-demand scenario, total demand for palm oil may increase to 61 million tons, or 90% of current global production, and demand for soy oil to 41 million tons, or 75% of current production.

This increase would cause an estimated 7 million hectares (17 million acres) of deforestation, including up to 3.6 million hectares (8.9 million acres) of peatland being drained. Global CO2 emissions from this additional deforestation would be 11.5 billion tons — more than China’s current annual emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Cazzolla Gatti said the EU has already raised concerns about this, with the bloc planning to phase out palm oil-based biofuel by 2030, but it continues to cling to the idea that palm oil can be sustainable.

“So the fundamental question in this regard is: do we, and who are these we, really need palm oil?” Cazzolla Gatti said. “Do we want to continue to give wildlife and tropical forests a value lower than that of a cheap oil, which — even when certified — has destroyed them?”


Cazzolla Gatti, R., & Velichevskaya, A. (2020). Certified “sustainable” palm oil took the place of endangered Bornean and Sumatran large mammals habitat and tropical forests in the last 30 years. Science of the Total Environment, 742, 140712. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.140712

Meijaard, E., Abrams, J., Juffe-Bignoli, D., Voigt, M., & Sheil, D. (2020). Coconut oil, conservation and the conscientious consumer. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.3575129

Cazzolla Gatti, R., Liang, J., Velichevskaya, A., & Zhou, M. (2019). Sustainable palm oil may not be so sustainable. Science of the Total Environment, 652, 48-51. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.10.222

This article by Hans Nicholas Jong was first published on Mongabay.com on 5 August 2020. Lead Image: Large male orangutan in Sumatra. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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