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Degraded Land for Sustainable Palm Oil in Indonesia: Practical Guidance

This post was co-authored with Anne Rosenbarger, a POTICO Fellow at Sekala.

In Indonesia, policy-makers and industry leaders are developing policies and practices in support of low-carbon palm oil production on “degraded land.”

Such policies and practices have the potential to enable industry expansion while avoiding greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation. They also could contribute to poverty reduction if this expansion follows sustainable planning and management practices, including respect for local peoples’ interests and rights. However, whether this potential is achieved will be highly dependent on how new policies and practices address three questions:

  • What is an appropriate definition of “degraded land” for low-carbon palm oil production?
  • Where are these lands located?
  • How do companies, governments, and NGOs determine which of these lands are suitable for sustainable palm oil production?

The World Resources Institute (WRI) and Sekala have released a new joint working paper that answers these questions.

The paper presents a quick, pratical, and cost-effective method for pre-screening sites that is consistent with both Indonesia’s proposed national policies and the certification standards of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The method includes both a desktop analysis and field assessments.

The widespread application of the method described in this paper—combined with appropriate due diligence activities—can help to unlock the potential of degraded land for sustainable palm oil in Indonesia.

This WRI/Sekala Working Paper demonstrates how to implement a quick and cost-effective method for identifying potentially suitable “degraded land” for sustainable palm oil production in Indonesia and presents results from the application of the method in West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan. The method consists of a desktop analysis as well as field assessments. The desktop portion of the method will be made easily replicable through an interactive Kalimantan-wide “Suitability Mapper” website currently under development, scheduled for release in mid-2012.

What definition of degraded land?

A frequently asked question regarding low-carbon palm oil policies is “what is degraded land?” This is because there is currently no single definition of degraded land and no corresponding definition in Indonesian law or policy. The term has been used in different contexts to describe land with a wide variety of characteristics.

For example, the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry has a method for identifying lahan kritis, often translated as “critical” or “degraded” land. This method was designed to guide reforestation activities. It selects for environmentally sensitive areas with low forest cover, steep slopes and a high risk of erosion. Converting these areas to oil palm plantations would likely have negative impacts on local soil and water resources, and, in many cases, may be commercially unattractive. Therefore, it would not be appropriate to use the definition of lahan kritis to guide site selection for sustainable palm oil production.

In the context of developing policies to support low-carbon palm oil production, an appropriate working definition of degraded land refers to areas with low carbon stocks and low biodiversity levels. Therefore, this paper uses land cover as a preliminary indicator for addressing this sustainability consideration.

Where are potentially suitable degraded lands?

Just because land is considered to be degraded from a carbon and biodiversity perspective does not necessarily make it suitable for sustainable palm oil production. For example, the area may be economically unattractive or local people may disagree with plantation proposals that do not appropriately take into account their existing claims and rights.

The paper presents a method for guiding initial site selection for palm oil that goes beyond identifying low-carbon areas to consider whether an area is potentially suitable for palm oil production according to established sustainability standards such as those of the RSPO. Therefore, the full method—which was developed with input from industry, government, and civil society—consists of environmental, economic, social, and legal considerations that include, but are not limited to, whether the land is “degraded.”

The first step in the method is a provincial-wide desktop analysis. Under Project POTICO, WRI and Sekala applied the method in West Kalimantan and Central Kalimantan. The desktop analysis classified 7 million hectares of land as potentially suitable in these provinces. This amount is similar to some estimates of projected future oil palm expansion in Indonesia by 2020.

<p>This map shows the location of West Kalimantan (green) and Central Kalimantan (red).</p>

This map shows the location of West Kalimantan (green) and Central Kalimantan (red).

WRI and Sekala are currently developing a “Suitability Mapper,” an online application to allow easy replication or customization of the desktop portion of the method. The mapper will be released in mid-2012.

How to identify potential sites for expansion? Fieldwork required

The paper emphasizes the importance of including social considerations in all stages of a comprehensive site selection process. Therefore, the method described is not limited to desktop analysis, but also includes field assessments.

<p>Field team in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo credit: Sekala.</p>

Field team in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo credit: Sekala.

Under Project POTICO, field assessments were conducted in 22 sites in West Kalimantan initially classified as potentially suitable in the desktop analysis. Of these, nine were confirmed as potentially suitable after additional site-specific information, such as community interest, was considered. These results clearly indicate that field assessments are necessary to confirm or reject the potential suitability of a site.

This practical method can be used by companies as a first step in a site selection process for a certified sustainable plantation and can inform government officials and NGOs in assessing land use policy options to support low-carbon palm oil expansion.

Read the full working paper: “How to identify degraded land for sustainable palm oil in Indonesia".

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