Mapping progress towards oil palm sustainability

The world’s most traded vegetable oil is often associated with deforestation, destruction of orangutan and elephant habitat, and peatland fires. The Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil certification system aims to change that, but some producers – especially smallholders – are struggling to comply with increasingly strict rules in the sector.

CIFOR research shows that not all smallholders are alike. Using maps of the distribution of smallholder plantations, researchers identified six different types of small-scale oil palm producers – subsistence farmers, early adopters, migrant laborers, migrant farmers, entrepreneurs and local elites – and recommend that policies and programs aimed at encouraging compliance should take into account the importance of palm oil to a smallholder’s livelihood, not just plot size.

Another team of scientists has produced a powerful tool that may prevent development on protected areas due to incorrect maps. Using a scale of 1:50,000, large-scale ecological vegetation maps detail logged-over areas, peat swamps, oil palm estates and other land uses, and even indicate the likely depth of carbon-rich peat – a valuable asset for Indonesia’s climate emissions reduction targets. The Borneo Atlas reveals land cover change information associated with oil palm plantations and helps verify yearly operation and trends in provinces, districts and protected areas.

And CIFOR’s ongoing research and engagement with policy makers, the private sector and oil palm communities contributed to the formulation and implementation of the country’s national action plan for sustainable palm oil, as put forward in Presidential Decree No. 6/2019, and to the development of provincial and district regulations on sustainable plantation development and the protection of High Conservation Value (HCV) areas.

Project info


Governing Oil Palm Landscapes (GOLS); Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes (OPAL)


Cameroon, Colombia, Indonesia

Funding partners

GOLS: United States Agency for International Development; OPAL: Switzerland

Project partners

CIFOR focal point

Heru Komarudin, Researcher

Forests in a
time of crises


In 2019, the world witnessed some of our greatest challenges shift gears from urgent to emergency – from climate crisis to landscape degradation to the wildfires that devastated ecosystems across several continents. But it also saw momentum build with the announcement of the UN Decade of Ecological Restoration, a focus on nature-based solutions, and the recognition of local forest communities and Indigenous Peoples are the best land managers for forest conservation.

Another exciting development – the merger of CIFOR and World Agroforestry (ICRAF) – set the stage for more evidence and solutions that will improve people’s lives, help to conserve and restore the ecosystems that support people and nature, and respond to the global climate crisis.

Our scientists advanced critical knowledge on forest landscape restoration, wild foods and timber legality in Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and peatland fires, biofuel, oil palm and wetland ‘blue carbon’ in Indonesia – with clear policy impacts in Southeast Asia from 10 years of social forestry research and engagement. Our ongoing Global Comparative Studies – GCS REDD+ and GCS Tenure – continued to bring science to policy makers across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Gender researchers looked deep into a myriad of topics, and we mourned the loss of principal scientist and Nairobi hub leader Esther Mwangi, whose legacy of achievements in gender and land rights won’t be soon forgotten. Finally the Global Landscapes Forum brought even more people together, both at events from Accra to Luxembourg as well as through exciting new digital innovations.