Originally written by  Craig Hanson for World Resources Institute.

Can the world have its palm oil and forests, too? This is an issue that my colleague and I discussed a while back. I am pleased to say that we recently moved a step toward ensuring that the answer is “yes.”

At the 10th Annual Meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), WRI launched two new online mapping applications designed to help the palm oil industry grow while avoiding deforestation. These free tools enable palm oil producers, buyers, investors, and government agencies to easily identify and evaluate locations in Indonesia where they can develop plantations on already-degraded land rather than on currently forested areas. By siting oil palm plantations on degraded or “low-carbon” lands, developers can avoid the need to clear remaining natural forests to meet the growing global demandfor palm oil.

Introducing the “Forest Cover Analyzer” and “Suitability Mapper”

The first application, the Forest Cover Analyzer, allows users to assess forest cover, forest cover change, and legal status inIndonesian Borneo. For the first time, companies can conduct their own online assessments to identify risks to sustainable palm oil production in a particular area. For example, users can determine whether a specific tract is likely to contain high-conservation value forest, or if it would be difficult to develop the area according to RSPO principles and criteria. By providing transparent and objective data on forest cover change, the Analyzer creates an incentive to avoid forested areas when establishing plantations.

The second application, the Suitability Mapper, allows palm oil producers, investors, and government spatial planners to locate tracts of low-carbon “degraded lands” that are potentially suitable for sustainable oil palm production. By “degraded,” we mean land where the natural vegetation—typically forests—was cleared years ago and where the forests did not recover. “Degraded” in this sense does not mean “poor soil quality,” but rather that the area has low carbon stocks, little biodiversity, and is not currently under cultivation. Alang-alang grasslands are an example of such areas in Indonesia.

The Suitability Mapper allows users to create and customize maps of potentially suitable degraded lands by applying a suite of objective criteria, such as land cover type (e.g., forest), peat depth, conservation areas, elevation, slope, rainfall, soil type, soil acidity, and more. WRI and its Indonesian partner, Sekala, developed the application to be consistent with international sustainability standards—such as those of the RSPO—and Indonesian laws and regulations. WRI and Sekala design the application with input from industry, government agencies, NGOs, and other experts. It currently covers Indonesian Borneo, but work is already underway to expand coverage to other Indonesian islands.

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