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palm-worker-mpocA new piece of research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on mangrove forests has prompted a number of media outlets to make palm oil the story.

For instance, headlines have appeared on the BBC declaring a ‘Rice and palm oil risk to mangroves’. The stories claim that rice and oil palm development are responsible for 38% of mangrove deforestation. But what are the facts?

A close look at the data presented by the researchers presents a picture that is completely different to the headlines. And there are a number of points raised by the researchers that contradict the headlines.

The first is that the total amount of mangrove deforestation across Southeast Asia is relatively small – approximately 2% over a 12-year period.

The second is that the major threat to mangrove forests is aquaculture, responsible for around 30% of mangrove deforestation across the region. This is followed by rice (21%), and then oil palm (17%). In other words, oil palm is a distant third.

The third point is that oil palm deforestation has been decreasing in Malaysia. It is now at lower levels than it was in 2007.

These key facts were ignored or downplayed in the BBC reporting.

Significant points

There are three other points that are significant, that are not raised in the research.

The first is that mangrove areas are in themselves not well suited to oil palm planting. Inundation by brackish water requires the establishment of bunds by farmers. It is generally the case that those undertaking planting on mangrove forest are doing so illegally.

Second, approximately 85% of mangrove areas in Malaysia have been gazetted for conservation or protection.

Third, Malaysia is undertaking a number of programmes and projects to restore peatlands that have been degraded in the past. The current projects involve a number of private-sector companies that are contributing both expertise and financial resources.

Despite this, the research and the media coverage have directed the focus to palm oil. More than that, it has generalised the information across regions. While Malaysia’s mangrove deforestation is declining, Indonesia’s is increasing and is roughly double that of Malaysia.

Furthermore, the main drivers across the region are the establishment of aquaculture and rice production. Both are vital contributors to national economies and overall development.

All three leading drivers – aquaculture, rice and oil palm – are for food production. So, more than two-thirds of mangrove deforestation are for food production.

Drivers of deforestation

One of the most significant studies of deforestation over recent years was by Geist and Lambin; it separated proximate and underlying causes of deforestation. For example, smallholder agriculture may be a proximate driver of deforestation, but the underlying driver might be poverty.

But underlying drivers aren’t mentioned in either the media coverage or even the journal article itself.

A story stating that impoverished populations are cutting down trees to grow rice would have been more accurate, but would have been less likely to gain attention, particularly on a news outlet such as the BBC.

Even worse, it appears that the media has chosen to include palm oil in its coverage simply because it is the bête noire of Western environmentalists. There are fewer sensationalist headlines in fish and rice than in palm oil.

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