Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is calling on the Government of Myanmar to protect the country’s last remaining lowland rainforest in the Tanintharyi Region from unsustainable oil palm development.
The call follows the publication of a report on the productivity and sustainability of oil palm plantations in the Tanintharyi Region of southern Myanmar which found that poor policies and practices in the sector are fuelling unsustainable development of this highly biodiverse landscape. The in-depth assessment was led by John Patrick Baskett, an expert with 45 years of professional experience in oil palm plantation management, and was funded by the European Union, Fondation Segré and Helmsley Charitable Trust.
Tanintharyi Region in southern Myanmar is home to the last significant area of Sundaic rainforest on the Thai peninsula, a unique form of transitional rainforest located between the evergreen tropical rainforest of Peninsula Malaysia and the monsoon forests to the north. As well as supporting a diverse array of wildlife including tigers and the striking Gurney’s pitta, these forests also provide critical ecosystem services including water regulation, erosion control and non-timber forest products for local communities, including indigenous Karen, Dawei and Mon people.
Fauna & Flora International, which commissioned the report, says the findings highlight the need for a moratorium on oil palm expansion in the country until a thorough environmental and social assessment of impacts has been carried out, and policies have been put in place to ensure that oil palm plantations do not compromise Myanmar’s vital forests.
“Currently most plantations are clearing high conservation value forests, and many companies are even clearing land outside their concession boundary. That is why we are calling on the new government of Myanmar to declare a complete moratorium on oil palm development – that means no new forest clearing and no new licences issued – until we can be sure that these plantations are sustainable” says Fauna & Flora International’s Myanmar Programme Director, Frank Momberg.
A bright new era?
In 1999, Myanmar authorities pushed for rapid expansion of the country’s oil palm industry in the Tanintharyi Region, ostensibly to reduce the country’s reliance on imports, improve rural infrastructure and attract foreign investment. They set a target of planting 283,280 hectares of oil palms by 2030 and granted land concessions to large Myanmar corporations and some foreign investors to achieve this.
According to the report, little to no consideration was given to land occupation by local populations, the conservation of forests, water sources and endangered species, or even the suitability of the land for oil palm.
Consequently, these policies have resulted in an unsustainable and poorly performing oil palm sector that faces considerable social, environmental and economic difficulties.
Lessons can be learned from Indonesia’s oil palm sector, where large areas of rainforest have been devastated, local people displaced and forest fires have caused serious environmental and economic impacts beyond the country’s border. Indonesia’s President Jokowi has now finally announced an oil palm moratorium to stop the unprecedented environmental destruction.
“The election of a new government in Myanmar this year brings with it the opportunity for a radical overhaul of the country’s oil palm strategy to make it fairer, more productive and – crucially – less damaging to the country’s forests and people,” says Momberg.
These reforms need to be all-encompassing and should start with a thorough reassessment of Myanmar’s oil palm targets, which should be based on the availability of suitable (already degraded) land, potential productivity gains and an economic assessment of edible oil imports versus domestic production.
Better land-use planning is also needed so that plantations are productive and do not damage environmentally sensitive areas or adversely affect communities. Company licences should include smallholder schemes to ensure that local people can benefit. National policies and regulations for sustainable palm oil need to be developed based on the international standards of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil.
Last but not least, the government needs to finalise the designation of the most valuable remaining intact rainforests as protected areas, in particular Lenya Proposed National Park and the Lenya National Park extension (Nawun Reserved Forest).
By taking these recommendations forward, the new government has the chance to ensure that Myanmar’s outstanding natural treasures are preserved for generations to come.