Forests, species on 4 continents threatened by palm oil expansion

From Duke University:

DURHAM, N.C. — As palm oil production expands from Southeast Asia into tropical regions of the Americas and Africa, vulnerable forests and species on four continents face increased risk of loss, a new Duke University-led study finds.

The largest areas of vulnerable forest are in Africa and South America, where more than 30 percent of forests within land suitable for oil palm plantations remain unprotected, the study shows.

Rates of recent deforestation have been highest in Southeast Asia and South America, particularly Indonesia, Ecuador and Peru, where more than half of all oil palms are grown on land cleared since 1989.

“Almost all oil palm is grown in places that once were tropical forests. Clearing these forests threatens biodiversity and increases greenhouse gas emissions,” said Varsha Vijay, a doctoral student at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment who led the study.

“By identifying where the greatest extent of palm oil-driven deforestation has recently occurred and modelling where future expansion is most likely, we can guide efforts to reduce these adverse impacts,” Vijay said.

Palm oil is now the world’s most widely traded vegetable oil, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The oil, which is harvested from oil palms, and its derivatives are common ingredients in many processed foods and personal care products. As global demand grows, large swaths of tropical forest are being converted into oil palm plantations in 43 countries.

Using 25 years of high-resolution Google Earth and Landsat satellite imagery, Vijay and her team tracked the extent of this deforestation in four regions: Southeast Asia, Africa, South America and Mesoamerica, which includes Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean.

They modeled where future deforestation is most likely to occur, based on the pace of recent expansion in each region and the extent of suitable forest …

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