"Those seeking to change legal classifications in a manner consistent with sustainability standards face substantial legal challenges"
Every year millions of hectares of rainforest are cleared to make palm oil plantations. Countless plants and animals are being pushed into extinction including the orang-utan, native of the rainforests of Borneo where deforestation for palm cultivation is especially acute.
But a new study by the World Resources Institute shows that there are 14.6 million hectares of already deforested land in Indonesian Borneo alone that are suitable for palm cultivation. So why are Borneo's rainforests being cleared for palm oil when so much suitable land - greater than the area of Greece - is available?
About 70 percent of Indonesia's land areas classified as "forest estate" (kawasan hutan) by the Ministry of Forestry, and much of that huge land area is deforested or badly degraded. However due to the "forest estate" designation, agriculture is forbidden.
So palm cultivation is directed towards the remaining 30% designated as "non-forest estate land (Areal Penggunaan Lain), which may be developed for agriculture, urbanisation or other purposes. However much of this area comprises primary or high quality secondary forest.
Of the 14.6 million Ha of suitable land, 5.3 million are in the Forest Estate. Meanwhile 8.6 million hectares of the land that is legally available for palm oil is not unsuitable - because it is covered in rainforest, because of existing indigenous use or ownership, or because it is too steep, rocky or infertile to farm.
The solution is a simple one, in theory: to reclassify land according to what is actually on the land, rather than out of date maps. Companies wanting to produce more sustainable palm oil can apply to change legal land use classifications for their plantations to develop degraded land, in a process known as a land swap. But in practice the legal processes are complex, time consuming and expensive.
For example, WRI attempted to carry out a land swap project with the Indonesian NGO Sekala and PT Smart, one of the largest palm oil companies. PT Smart held a license for forested peatland in West Kalimantan Province, classified as non-Forest Estate, and was seeking an alternative site on degraded land.
In 2009 WRI and Sekala identified a suitable site nearby, which also attracted support from local communities. WRI, Sekala, and PT Smart attempted to have the areas reclassified using Indonesia's spatial plan revision process. But after two years of costly effort, the Indonesian government rejected the plan, which has now stalled entirely due to the complexity and cost of the legal process.
As WRI reports, "Companies, project developers and communities seeking to change legal classifications in a manner that is consistent with sustainability standards face substantial legal challenges, namely the length and costs of the processes, lack of legal clarity, and lack of consistency with goals to avoid forest loss and social conflicts."