Palm Oil’s Threat to Biodiversity in Indonesia

Habitat loss and degradation is the leading cause of loss to biodiversity and Indonesia’s terrain has become one of the most notorious examples of this. Its swift conversion of heavily forested lands to commercial agricultural uses that result in monoculture crops has accelerated out of control. The path toward extinction for much of Indonesia’s biologically diverse and exquisitely unique multitude of mammals, birds, and flora appears likely, if not inevitable. Indonesia has found itself in a double bind because of its own poverty and need for global investment paired with the global demand for the production of an extremely versatile commodity: palm oil.

Too good to be true

Palm oil is a consumer miracle. The oil  is odorless and tasteless and does not contain trans fat, which is now banned in many countries including the United States. It is the hidden ingredient for almost anything we use that’s soft or malleable. In the bathroom, it can be found in cosmetics, toothpaste, soap, and shampoo; in the kitchen, you’ll find it in cooking oil, margarine, and ice-cream; and in the garage, it is used in wax, polish, and lubricants. As a commodity, it is attractive because it has low production costs and high yields per hectare. Indonesia is its largest producer, accounting for 36 million metric tons of the global total of 58.8 million metric tons produced annually. Yet, the effect on biodiversity is horrendous. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Only 15% of native species can survive the transition from primary forest to plantation.”


Scope of the problem

The threat posed by palm oil plantations is growing. Grown in many regions of the world including Africa, South-Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, exports of palm oil to the have U.S. increased by 485% in just one decade. South-Asian countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia have received the most concern because their rain forests guard even more carbon than those of Brazil. Such carbon-rich environments are critical areas for preventing further climate change risks.

Deforestation fever

According to a 2014 study published in Nature Climate Change, Indonesia had the highest rate of deforestation in the world with roughly 840,000 hectares cleared in the last year of the study, 2012. Over the twelve-year period covered in the study, Indonesia’s loss of natural forest coverage was calculated at over 6 million hectares. Indonesia’s level of damage seems disproportionate to its size. Its deforestation far exceeds that of Brazil, with five times its natural forest cover, and the carbon emissions linked to forest clearing are so high that Indonesia has remained the 3rd highest greenhouse gas emitting country worldwide for several years.

Global Forest Watch map of Indonesia showing forest loss between 2001-2012 as well as primary and secondary forest.

In theory, Indonesia recognizes the curse of deforestation because it signed a moratorium on new permits for logging and plantations funded by Norway. Yet, when it was signed in 2011, existing forests that would account for up to 85% of the carbon emissions had been exempted including 1.2 million hectares in the Riau province, filled with the fertile peatlands that are attractive to investors, but more harmful to the atmosphere. Peatlands themselves store up to 28 times the carbon of of the forests that grow on top of them, but carbon and methane are released from them even years after deforestation has occurred.

With dubious results, the moratorium has not curbed illegal deforestation, even in protected areas. Indonesia’s own Ministry of Forestry found illegal deforestation in 37 of 41 of its national parks. According to Anne Casson, palm oil plantation development has been evidenced in a number of national park buffer zones including Tanjung Puting National Park, Bukit Tiga Puluh National Park, Gunung Leuser National Park, and Danau Sentarum National Park. Areas of great significance for protecting the worlds biodiversity are at stake because of Indonesian deforestation.

Effect on biodiversity

Indonesia is particularly important for global biodiversity because it may have the most endemic species on the entire planet. It also likely contains the highest number of speces in any one country, and for a tiny country covering just 1 percent of the Earth’s land, that’s huge! Packed into the array of islands that collectively form Indonesia, you’ll find:

  • 10 percent of all plant species
  • 12 percent of all mammal species
  • 17 percent of all bird species

For plants, it is a lush land of orchids and thousands of other tropical flowers, scenting the air in 25,000 different ways because that’s how many different species adorn the forests. Naturally birds flock to these flowers to feed on their nectar with a rash of 430 different species. But due to deforestation, they are left bereft of home making Indonesia the country with the highest number of threatened bird species at 114. Indeed, the vital protection of the rain forest canopies that palm oil threatens are vital for maintaining such an immense diversity of life.

Indonesia is mostly covered by two biodiversity hotspots: Sundaland and Wallacea. Biodiversity hotspots are lands designated for two reasons: they contain high numbers of biologically diverse species and they are threatened. Sundaland covers the bulk of palm oil plantation lands which threaten its biodiversity. Palm oil contributes to staggering losses of this variety and exclusive variety of species–up to 83% of butterfly and bird species of a region vanish where forests have converted to palm oil plantations. Sundaland’s fertile land also lends itself to the production of rubber and pulp for paper mills. Finally, with greater access to the jungle following the development of roads, hunters stalk the rare creatures living in these forests for the international animal trade.

These are just a few of the fascinating large mammal victims of this dilemma:

Clouded Leopard: Defenders of Wildlife 

Name: Clouded Leopard

Status: Vulnerable

Personality: Elusive

Talent: Lives in the clouds by wandering the rain forest canopies and avoiding the lowly surface of the earth.

Sumatran Orangutan: Photo Credit WWF

Name: Sumatran Orangutan

Status: Critically Endangered

Personality: Family-oriented and social

Talent: Shares 97% of DNA with humans, making it our closest living relative.

Pig Deer: Photo Credit National Geographic

Name: Babirusa, aka Pig Deer

Status: Vulnerable

Personality: Hungry. It has a voracious appetite for just about anything (“leaves, fruits, berries, nuts, mushrooms, bark, insects, fish, and small mammals, and even smaller babirusas!”)

Talent: A knack for plowing the earth. It loves to kneel down and push its snout through the dirt, presumably sniffing for food.

Sumatran Elephant: Photo Credit Berdiri

Name: Sumatran Elephant

Status: Critically Endangered

Personality: Angry when provoked. These elephants are not happy about their loss of habitat and as a result, they raid human crops and trample homes.

Talent: Deposits seeds throughout their habitat, like farmers, and contributing to a healthy ecosystem.

Sumatran tiger, Indonesia
Sumatran Tiger: Photo Credit World Wildlife Fund

Name: Sumatran Tiger

Status: Critically Endangered

Personality: Enjoys lots of space across a large range

Talent: Fatally attractive. Due to its beauty, it is a sought after species for poachers and the last of Indonesian tigers still alive (barely).


Pig Tailed Langur: IUCN Redlist of Threatened Species

Name: Pig Tailed Langur

Status: Critically Endangered

Personality: Experts at communication, using 2 to 25 nasal bark vocalizations that travel up to 500m through the forest.

Talent: Leaping through the trees to attract mates.

What’s being done?

In addition to the moratorium on new land permits of 2011, several other influential measures have been introduced to slow the high rate of deforestation in Indonesia.

In 2004, the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil was founded by the private industry sector to establish guidelines to prevent deforestation from primary forests. However, not all lands are included in these guidelines with the noted exception of peatlands. In addition, its certification does not ensure protection for secondary forests. It has often been criticized as weak and ineffective by environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund.

In 2014, the New York Declaration on Forests was endorsed at the UN Climate Summit with endorsement from over 190 endorsers: 40 governments, 20 sub-national governments, 57 multi-national companies, 16 groups representing indigenous communities, and 57 non-government organizations. By establishing agreements that involve key stakeholders and set clear goals, this measure has raised the bar for international commitment to alleviating the problem.

Friends of the Earth International also cites Norway’s divestment from 23 palm oil companies as a step in the right direction. Targeting palm oil industry leaders such as Wilmar and Cargill is a necessary feature of any policy that aims to limit Indonesia’s deforestation.

What can you do?

Finding a solution to the problem of deforestation is complicated because it involves the interest of local people, governments, multi-national corporations, private investors, and the inhabitants of the forests, themselves. It is not easy, and the exacerbation of the problem has grown unconscionably over the past fifteen years. However, the value of this region to biodiversity is critical and every measure of support will contribute to the halting of ecocide committed in the name of monoculture plantations.

In addition to supporting any of the organizations I’ve linked to in this site, you can also assert pressure by raising awareness about the problem and making wise consumer decisions to support companies (such as those mentioned in this scorecard) that support deforestation-free palm oil.


6 thoughts on “Palm Oil’s Threat to Biodiversity in Indonesia

  1. Erica,

    Excellent and heart-breaking article. Thanks for directing me to your site. Globalization is looking more and more like plagues of locusts that move in and destroy everything in their paths. Governments are helpless in the face of international investors, and it seems locals are entranced by promises of brighter futures, until it’s too late to salvage what’s left of their lives. Glad you are on top of this. Looking forward to following.

    Have you read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”? It cites deforestation is the most significant determinant of failed societies.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A plague of locusts is quite an apt metaphor. Thanks for your concern and interest as well as the book recommendation. I have not read it, but as I’d like to include more book reviews on my site, I’ll check it out!

      Liked by 1 person

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