Is Palm Oil Plantation in Indonesia a Form of Reforestation?

The expansion of oil palm plantation in Indonesia is a form of reforestation, seen from the origin of the land, the spatial policy, and the definition of forest by FAO

The perception that spreads in the community considers the oil palm plantations as a form of deforestation. Yet from various angles, it is difficult not to say oil palm plantation is actually another form of reforestation. There are at least four things that can be the reasons why oil palm plantation is actually a form of reforestation.

First, the definition of forests internationally has changed. The so-called forests internationally are no longer solely primary forests (the protected and conservation ones) as before, because Europe and the United States have no longer the so-called forests, because their primary forests have long gone. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) defines forests as “land with a minimum area of ​​0.5 hectares overgrown with plants having an adult height of 5 meters and a land cover of more than 10 percent”. With the definition of forest from the FAO, every country has registered all the annual plantation crops, industrial forest plantations, urban forest, trees along the roadside as forest (Indonesia has not done it yet).

Referring to the definition of forest from the FAO, the oil palm plantations and rubber plantations are parts of the forest. Planting a plot of land with oil palm or rubber trees is a form of reforestation. In fact, the Ministry of Forestry (formerly Department of Forestry) ever adopted the FAO definition and classified palm and rubber plantations as forest crops.

Secondly, by the definition of changes in the carbon stock of soil, as adopted by some forestry experts and ecologist, deforestation occurs if a plot of land with a higher carbon stock (e.g. an untouched production forest) is converted into another crop plantation, or other sectors, with a lower carbon stock. Contrarily, if a plot of land with a lower carbon stock is converted into a plantation with a higher carbon stock, it is called reforestation. Agricultural land, abandoned land, or shrubs, if converted into forest trees, oil palm plantations, rubber plantations, they are actually reforested.

Well, about 71 percent  of Indonesian oil palm plantations, based on satellite imagery data (Gunarso, et al, 2012) came from agricultural land, abandoned land, and shrubs. The remaining 29 percent came from degraded forest  (Forest with Business Right, HPH) that were left abandoned. So, overall the Indonesian palm oil plantation is actually a form of reforestation.

Thirdly, by administration and spatial policy, Law no. 26 of 2007 on the arrangement of space regulate that the land of Indonesia is divided into two areas which are protected areas and areas of cultivation. With the law, there is no more forest area as it used to, such as the Dutch colonial heritage register. Protected Areas include conservation forests and protected forests that are primarily functioning as the “homes” of wildlife and wide range species of flora (biodiversity), and they also serve as natural fortresses. Because of this important and irreplaceable function, the protected area should not be converted into other sectors. While the cultivation area, including production forests, industrial forest plantations, agriculture and other sectors, administratively and according to policies, changes of production forest into oil palm plantations or otherwise are not seen as deforestation or reforestation, only conversion.

Palm oil plantations are in the area of ​​cultivation. The origin of Indonesia’s palm oil plantation area of ​​approximately 10 million hectares is from the conversion of agricultural land and abandoned land in the cultivation area (71 percent). The remaining comes from production forests (in cultivation areas) that have been damaged by logging in Forest with Business Right (29 percent). Because both are in the area of ​​cultivation, according their administration and the policy, oil palm plantation expansion is not considered as deforestation (from protected areas).

Fourth, in an ecosystem, the very important and irreplaceable function of plants is as “the lungs of the world”. Plants, both forest plants and cultivated plants such as oil palm, rubber and others are gifted with photosynthetic capability that absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and converts it to oxygen (O2). The faster the plant grows, the larger the CO2 that will be absorbed and the greater the production of O2. Functioning as “lungs”, oil palm is equally effective as  any other forest plants. Currently, global ecosystems suffer from high CO2 concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere due to the increasing consumption of fossil energy. It causes global warming and global climate change. Therefore, in addition to reducing fossil fuel, any plant should be grown rapidly to absorb CO2 from the air as much as possible. Indonesia’s oil palm is also a part of “lungs” of the world, saving the planet from global warming.

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