Managing fire risk during drought: the influence of certification and El Niño on fire-driven forest conversion for oil palm in Southeast Asia
Indonesia and Malaysia have emerged as leading producers of palm oil in the past several decades, expanding production through the conversion of tropical forests to industrial plantations. Efforts to produce
sustainable palm oil, including certification by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), include guidelines designed to reduce the environmental impact of palm oil production. Fire-driven deforestation is prohibited by law in both countries and a stipulation of RSPO certification, yet the degree of environmental compliance is unclear, especially during El Niño events when drought conditions increase fire risk. Here, we used time series of satellite data to estimate the spatial and temporal patterns of fire-driven deforestation on and around oil palm plantations. In Indonesia, fire-driven deforestation accounted for one-quarter of total forest losses on both certified and noncertified plantations. After the first plantations in Indonesia received RSPO certification in 2009, forest loss and fire-driven deforestation declined on certified plantations but did not stop altogether. Oil palm expansion in Malaysia rarely involved fire; only 5 % of forest loss on certified plantations had coincident active fire detections. Interannual variability in fire detections was strongly influenced by El Niño and the timing of certification. Fire activity during the 2002, 2004, and 2006 El Niño events was similar among oil palm plantations in Indonesia that would later become certified, noncertified plantations, and surrounding areas. However, total fire activity was 75 % and 66 % lower on certified plantations than noncertified plantations during the 2009 and 2015 El Niño events, respectively. The decline in fire activity on certified plantations, including during drought periods, highlights the potential for RSPO certification to safeguard carbon stocks in peatlands and remaining forests in accordance with legislation banning fires. However, aligning certification standards with satellite monitoring capabilities will be critical to realize sustainable palm oil production and meet industry commitments to zero deforestation.