Monday, September 27, 2010

Biased Studies on Deforestation and Indirect Land Use Effect of Oil Palm

Western Environmental NGOs (WENGOs) often attempt to undertake studies to demonstrate the impact of deforestation on climate change or biodiversity losses in collaboration with universities in order to establish credibility in the final reports generated. However, many of these studies are not based on valid experimental designs or sound methodology.

In studying deforestation activities, for example, the outcome may change drastically if you choose and pick specific cut-off periods and regions as these will highlight and include only selected data while oppressing other data sets. The deliberate omission of data may then lead to possible biasness and potentially wrong conclusions. If the study’s intention is truly to evaluate a very specific narrow objective, then the conclusions should be restricted to the limits set initially and should not be generalized to support claims over broad and multi-causal topics like deforestation or global warming.

This blog had earlier commented on the fallacy associated when study results are generalized beyond the restricted objectives of the researchers. For e.g. , a study on biodiversity in an oil palm plantation can have ‘unfavourable’ out come if it is compared to biodiversity in virgin forest but it will have ‘favourable’ effect if compared to biodiversity of other agricultural areas. It is common for WENGOs to use such studies to conclude that biodiversity in oil palm plantations is less than that in virgin forest when the logical comparison should be with biodiversity existing in other agricultural crops as oil palm is an agricultural crop. Biodiversity in an oil palm plantation should be compared with that of forest plantation as oil palm is a forest plantation crop.

A recent study using satellite imaging analysis was quoted to have found a high rate of deforestation between 1980 and 2000 period, and the result was (wrongly) interpreted to mean that such a deforestation rate will cause global warming. Since most of the deforestation occurred in the developing countries, these countries were therefore linked to the cause of global warming. In the minds of the WENGOs, this is a clear case supporting their demands for no deforestation and an attempt to stop further development in developing countries. As a result of these type of restricted studies, ministers and government opinion leaders in the EU are convinced that deforestation is bad and therefore it must be stopped at all costs without realising that such studies are biased by the selective use of specific period when developing countries were indeed developing their agricultural industries. Conclusions derived from such studies are not considered valid by government leaders, opinion makers and NGOs in the developing countries.

For these developing countries, development is an important component of economic survival and they aspire to use the examples set in the developed countries as their model of development. They would disagree if developed countries attempt to dictate on the need to curb deforestation especially if this is without any substantial compensation. Furthermore, many realize that developed countries became developed by clearing their forests to grow industrial crops and establish other industrial activities on their (previously forested) land assets. Therefore, a deforestation moratorium has to be linked to an adequate compensation mechanism so as not to stifle the development needs of developing countries.

If deforestation and forest cover are important, the trend set by the developed countries with regard to the extent of forest cover should form the basis for future guidelines. Forest cover is a reversible process of deforestation and aforestation. A developed country can re-establish its forest area to similar high standards that it desires other developing countries to have. Therefore, a developed country that has only 10 to 20 % forest cover with no serious aforestation trend and policy has no moral right to call on developing countries with a larger percentage of forest cover to start aforestation programmes or to stop deforestation without offering adequate compensation.

The developing countries have a sovereign right to develop their land for economic growth in order to become developed nations in future. If the period on which the deforestation study is undertaken is extended back by 100 or 200 years, then it will be obvious that deforestation mainly took place in the developed countries and they would be implicated as the main contributor of global warming through massive cumulative deforestation. Selective studies designed to omit consideration of past emissions was cleverly deployed to show that the USA and EU emit less carbon as compared to developing countries as only present level of deforestation was compared. They do not include the massive deforestation and emission of CO2 in the past which have accumulated in the atmosphere, causing global temperature to increase gradually over the last 100 years.

The other real major flaw in the WENGOs’ argument is to ignore the massive contribution (more than 80%) of the fossil fuel sector toward global CO2 emission and global warming. Most of the emission during the last 200 years was from fossil fuel emission of industrial activities in developed countries. Deforestation which occurred mostly in developed countries during this period was estimated to have contributed about 17 % of the emission and global warming effect.

There was no analysis to show conclusively that the 11 million hectares of oil palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia representing 0.1% of global agricultural areas have contributed to significant global rise in temperature even if it is assumed that these oil palm areas were originally forested land. Logically that 0.1 % of world agricultural land used for growing oil palm would not show any significant effect on global warming compared to the use of fossil fuel and the past deforestation in developed countries, as 0.1 % is far too small to have any significant effect. Even tripling the oil palm planted area to 0.3% of world agricultural land would not have any significant effect on global warming.

On the other hand, should oil palm plantations not be expanded, this will cause 10 times more forest land to be converted for growing soyabean crop to meet future world shortages in oils and fats supply as argued in my previous article. Because of the potential deforestation avoidance effects of palm oil by a factor of 10 times, it would clearly imply that the more palm oil produced to meet world shortages, much more forest areas will be saved from being cleared to plant lower yielding oilseed crops. Deforestation studies which ignore these effects will grossly underestimate the global warming mitigation effects of palm oil and researchers conducting such biased studies will do injustice by masking the excellent potential capacity of the oil palm to mitigate global warming.

The biased results of studies on deforestation have contributed to the grave mistake of focusing world attention on deforestation in developing countries while ignoring the real culprit: the huge emission of CO2 contributed by the fossil fuel sector. It is important that the focus should be to reduce fossil fuel use in the developed countries.

The above argument explains the suspicion by developing countries that WENGOs are conducting a bogus campaign against the oil palm industry. The motivation must be to divert attention away from the real culprit who contributes to global warming : the fossil fuel sector which is allowed to continue to expand as it is vital for developed countries economic performance. Another motive is to protect their indigenous oilseed sectors, which are not sustainably produced, from competition coming from cheaper and more efficiently produced palm oil.

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