Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change

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The growth of the palm oil industry has transformed part of the tropical rain forest of Papua, Indonesia, into gridded blocks of palm oil plantations. Indonesia produces a little over half of the world’s palm oil. Together, Indonesia and Malaysia produce 87% of the world’s palm oil.

Palm oil is used in about half of all consumer goods. It is found in cooking oil, soap, food additives, and myriad other products. You have almost certainly used palm oil recently probably without knowing it.

Map of the featured area.

In the late 1960s, the Indonesian government began working toward improving and expanding its economy. It encouraged people to move to the remote and less developed eastern islands. One of the industries it expanded was logging. As workers cut down the primary forests, the forests were not allowed to grow back into secondary forest. Instead, they were planted as palm oil plantations. Palm oil trees are native to Africa and were found to thrive in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Palm oil demand is up as demand for biofuels rises. Biofuel producers say palm oil is a renewable alternative to fossil fuels. One hectare of a palm oil plantation can produce 10 times as much oil as other oilseed crops, including soybeans.

The palm oil plantations show up clearly in Landsat images in the middle of the undisturbed rain forest. Road networks—the pink jagged lines—cut through the green of the rain forest. One road leads from the cleared forest to the river town Asike.

The first cleared area that appears in these images covers about 14,500 hectares. By 2014, another new planted region appears just south of the first cleared area. The next section shows those cleared areas in more detail.

Understandably, many countries are pursuing renewable resources to get away from the reliance on fossil fuels. However, new research has determined that palm oil doesn’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions at all—producing biofuel from palm oil may actually increase greenhouse gases as much as burning fossil fuels does.

One of the reasons is peat land. Much of the rain forest that is being converted to palm oil plantations is located on peat land. These natural carbon sinks sequester huge amounts of carbon. Cutting these forests and draining the peat land releases this stored carbon that has been there for thousands of years. Besides that, the carbon costs in fertilizing and managing the crops, processing the products, and transporting them outweigh any benefits.

Forest cover in West Papua was estimated to be 33 million hectares in 1997. That reduced to 30.4 million hectares by 2004. Even more plantations appear by the 2014, 2015, and 2017 images.


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