Demand for agricultural commodities is the leading driver of tropical deforestation. Many corporations have pledged to eliminate forest loss from their supply chains by purchasing only certified “sustainable” products. To evaluate whether certification fulfills such pledges, we applied statistical analyses to satellite-based estimates of tree cover loss to infer the causal impact of a third-party certification system on deforestation and fire within Indonesian oil palm plantations. We found that certification significantly reduced deforestation, but not fire or peatland clearance, among participating plantations. Moreover, certification was mostly adopted in older plantations that contained little remaining forest. Broader adoption by oil palm growers is likely needed for certification to have a large impact on total forest area lost to oil palm expansion.
Many major corporations and countries have made commitments to purchase or produce only “sustainable” palm oil, a commodity responsible for substantial tropical forest loss. Sustainability certification is the tool most used to fulfill these procurement policies, and around 20% of global palm oil production was certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in 2017. However, the effect of certification on deforestation in oil palm plantations remains unclear. Here, we use a comprehensive dataset of RSPO-certified and noncertified oil palm plantations (∼188,000 km2) in Indonesia, the leading producer of palm oil, as well as annual remotely sensed metrics of tree cover loss and fire occurrence, to evaluate the impact of certification on deforestation and fire from 2001 to 2015. While forest loss and fire continued after RSPO certification, certified palm oil was associated with reduced deforestation. Certification lowered deforestation by 33% from a counterfactual of 9.8 to 6.6% y−1. Nevertheless, most plantations contained little residual forest when they received certification. As a result, by 2015, certified areas held less than 1% of forests remaining within Indonesian oil palm plantations. Moreover, certification had no causal impact on forest loss in peatlands or active fire detection rates. Broader adoption of certification in forested regions, strict requirements to avoid all peat, and routine monitoring of clearly defined forest cover loss in certified and RSPO member-held plantations appear necessary if the RSPO is to yield conservation and climate benefits from reductions in tropical deforestation.
Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil; peatland; quasi-experimental methods; governance;tropical commodity
PDF link: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/12/05/1704728114.full.pdf