KUALA LUMPUR: The palm oil industry was responsible for at least 39 per cent of forest loss in biodiversity-rich Borneo island between 2000 and 2018, data from an Indonesia-based research firm shows.
The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) data, published this month via its Borneo Atlas tool, comes as a smoky haze has spread across Southeast Asia from fires in Borneo and others parts of Indonesia, causing a drop in air quality to unhealthy levels in neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia.
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Some palm oil farmers have been accused of using slash-and-burn methods to clear land for planting. The palm oil industry has long been blamed for encroaching on rainforests in Borneo, endangering wildlife such as orangutans and pygmy elephants.
Borneo, shared by Brunei and top palm oil producers Indonesia and Malaysia, has lost 6.3 million hectares of forest cover between 2000 and 2018, the CIFOR data showed. Palm oil companies accounted for about 2.4 million hectares of the loss while pulpwood firm accounted for 461,319 hectares.
Palm oil was responsible for 35 per cent of forest loss in the Indonesian part of Borneo, and 46 per cent in the Malaysian side.
"This is a conservative number. It does not include all forest areas impacted by plantations development," David Gaveau, climate scientist at CIFOR, told Reuters.
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Indonesia and Malaysia produce about 85 per cent of the world's palm oil, which is used in everything from soaps, lipstick to pizza and biodiesel.
CIFOR determined the amount of deforestation caused by companies by calculating the area of forest cleared and converted to industrial plantations within the same year.
The data does not include plantations of small holder farmers - who account for 40 per cent of palm oil production globally according to industry estimates.
Gaveau said the conversion from forest area to plantations has slowed since 2012, due to lower palm oil prices and Indonesia's moratoriums on new plantations.
The forest loss from expansion of palm oil plantations fell to 22 per cent last year, from 28.5 per cent the previous year, the data showed.
A spokeswoman for Malaysia's ministry in charge of palm oil said the government had adopted policies to cap oil palm cultivation area to 6.5 million hectares.
As of 2018, total oil palm planted area was about 5.8 million hectares in the country.
The government also plans to end conversion of forest reserves to palm oil plantations, the spokeswoman said.
Officials from the Indonesian Palm Oil Association, agriculture and forestry ministries did not immediately respond to requests for comment.