A New Tool Reveals Where Tropical Forests Most Need Saving

An online map app could help companies, conservation groups, and communities save forests before they are razed or burned for palm oil plantations.

A worker at a palm oil plantation in Agusan del Sur province, Philippines, handles newly harvested fruits. (Photo: Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

Jun 8, 2016· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

An eye in the sky may help big consumer-goods companies follow through on promises to eliminate deforestation from their palm oil supply chains.

The new online tool, called PALM Risk, uses satellite data from Global Forest Watch to identify which of the world’s 800 palm oil mills in Malaysia, Indonesia, Africa, and South America are likely to drive forest loss.

“Palm oil has to be processed quickly, within 24 hours of being harvested,” said Sarah Lake, interim manager for Global Forest Watch Commodities at the World Resources Institute, which created PALM Risk. That means that all palm oil mills source their materials from plantations within a day’s drive of their locations.

WRI introduced the tool Wednesday at a meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an umbrella group of industry, finance, and conservation organizations working to stem palm oil–driven deforestation.

To create the tool, WRI identified palm oil mills using information from FoodReg, a company that traces the supply chains of products around the world. Forest data collected by satellite were used to map primary forests, protected areas, peat forests, or recent forest fires within a 31-mile radius of each mill.

A pilot project conducted with Unilever, one of the world’s largest purchasers of palm oil, found that 29 mills, or about 5 percent of the company’s supply chain, were at high risk of causing deforestation. Unilever is now working on follow-up steps to identify key actions for each of the 29 mill sites, according to WRI.

RELATED: Fight for the Forests

“Everyone’s going to have some high-risk mills,” she said. “What makes them high risk is the combination of significant impacts in the past but also the potential for impact in the future.”

If the tool identifies untouched forest near a mill, Unilever or other buyers can intervene to make sure that the area does not face destruction from expanding nearby plantations. “Protecting primary forests is important because they help biodiversity, provide ecosystem services, and provide carbon storage,” Lake said.

Similarly, if the tool shows a history of recent fires near a mill, its operators can tell suppliers to make sure that they are not burning down forests and ensure that they have better fire-management programs in place.

Perhaps most important, the tool allows a company to quickly investigate a large portion of its supply chain without resorting to site visits, a process that can take years. “Consumer-goods manufacturers are probably sourcing from several hundred if not thousands of mills,” Lake said. “The tool helps them to identify the five or 10 or 20 mills that are the highest priority.”

PALM Risk is also freely available to conservation organizations and the general public—anyone who wishes to monitor and track deforestation, Lake said. The system can identify both local areas and entire geographic regions containing forests in need of protection, allowing companies to work with local governments, groups of growers, and other regional stakeholders to stop or avoid deforestation.