"RSPO has the potential to reduce fires on oil-palm concessions, although it is currently only effective when fire likelihood is relatively low," Megan Cattau of Columbia University, US, told environmentalresearchweb. "Fires are more likely to occur and more difficult to suppress during El Niño conditions and on peatlands. In order for this mechanism to reduce fire, additional strategies will be needed to control fires …in dry years and on peatlands."

Oil palm is used as a vegetable oil in many applications, and as a biofuel. In the ten years to 2000, the area of oil-palm cultivation in Indonesia expanded 600% to 7.8 Mha. The country has pledged to double its oil-palm production from 2010 to 2020, and Sumatra and Kalimantan are the leading producers of oil palm worldwide.

Conversion of forest to oil palm plantations harms biodiversity and emits greenhouse gases, particularly for peatlands. Others argue, according to Cattau and her colleagues writing in ERL, that oil palm has a higher yield than alternatives such as soybean, sunflower or rapeseed and that it can reduce poverty, contribute to national economies and provide a carbon sink relative to degraded lands.

Established in 2004 as an industry-led trade organization, the RSPO prohibits the use of fire, which is used elsewhere to convert and manage land for oil-palm production. Fires can spread outside oil-palm concessions and cause smog and particulate air pollution, particularly when peatlands burn.

In late 2015, following the most severe fire season since 1997/98, Indonesian president Joko Widodo banned clearance and conversion of peatlands; legislation is forthcoming.

"Fires in Indonesia are clearly an environmental crisis," said Cattau. "They can emit pollutants that deteriorate air quality and harm human health, cause biodiversity and carbon losses, and damage property. Oil-palm concession development can lead to increased fire incidence, as fire is often used to clear land prior to the initial crop planting, prior to replanting after a complete crop cycle, or to eliminate pests mid-cycle."

To date, there had been little evidence of how RSPO certification affects fire activity. With that in mind, Cattau and colleagues Miriam Marlier and Ruth DeFries, also from Columbia University, looked at the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) Active Fire Detections for oil-palm concessions in Indonesia. The team had previously modelled how to identify the location of a fire ignition.

"RSPO is designed, in part, to address the growing concerns about the negative environmental impacts of the palm-oil industry," said Cattau. "RSPO is currently the largest multi-stakeholder organization focused on sustainability within the palm-oil sector and so has a large potential to reduce the negative impacts of oil-palm concession development globally. This potential impact is particularly critical in fuel-rich peatlands, of which approximately 46% of the area was designated as oil-palm concession as of 2010."

Encouraged by the potential for RSPO to reduce fire on oil-palm concessions, the team wanted to assess how effective the certification was. "We thought that if we found that fire activity was reduced on RSPO certification, our work would provide evidence that RSPO is making a positive impact," said Cattau. "If not, it would imply that additional strategies would be needed to control fires in oil-palm plantations. Either way, this work would move the conversation forward."

A number of groups have been trying to strengthen the RSPO, according to Cattau, who believes its potential to further reduce environmental impacts, including fire, may depend in part upon clarification of the RSPO Principles and Criteria. "The Palm Oil Innovation Group and the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto have been developed to provide additional clarification and criteria above and beyond what is required by the RSPO," she said, "and the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil standard introduces accountability for domestic growers".

Cattau hopes the study will contribute to further support for RSPO, both by demonstrating that it may be an effective way to reduce fire on oil-palm concessions and by suggesting that further support is needed for RSPO to reduce fire when fire risk is high.

"We are currently assessing the relative influence of various biophysical and anthropogenic factors contributing to fire probability in a degraded area called the Mega Rice Project in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, including how oil-palm concession designation influences fire probability," said Cattau. "Some of the co-authors are also working on projecting the future distribution of plantations and estimating the associated fire emissions and human health impacts."

Cattau and colleagues reported their findings in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

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