A palm oil plantation is visible in Polewali Mandar, South...

A palm oil plantation is visible in Polewali Mandar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, April 23, 2024. Vast swathes of Indonesia’s old-growth forests are left undeveloped for years after they’re felled and when the land is finally put to use, it’s most often for new palm oil plantations, according to a new study. Credit: AP/Yusuf Wahil

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Years after being felled, vast swathes of Indonesia's old-growth forests are left sitting idle. And when the land is finally put to use, it's most often for new palm oil plantations, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

But some experts — including the study's authors — are hoping for a silver lining: The opportunity for Indonesia to expand its agricultural, palm, pulp and other commodities without having to cut down more trees, thus meeting increasing demand from companies and governments for products that didn't depend on deforestation.

“There’s maybe some hope that if the country can focus on these idle, non-forest lands ... it could potentially drop deforestation to zero, and still have a lot of opportunities for economic development,” said Diana Parker, a postdoctoral associate in the University of Maryland’s Department of Geographical Sciences and the lead author of the study.

A vast tropical archipelago stretching across the equator, Indonesia is home to the world’s third-largest rainforest, with a variety of endangered wildlife and plants, including orangutans, elephants and giant forest flowers. Some live nowhere else.

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, a vegetable oil that is used for cooking and as an ingredient in many foods and in hundreds of everyday products. Indonesia also has the world’s largest reserves of nickel — a critical material for electric vehicles, solar panels and other goods needed for the green energy transition.

Since 1950, more than 74 million hectares (285,715 square miles) of Indonesian rainforest — an area twice the size of Germany — have been logged, burned or degraded for development of palm oil, paper and rubber plantations, nickel mining and other commodities, according to Global Forest Watch.

In addition, some 25% of its old-growth forests — which are typically high in stored carbon and rich in biodiversity — have been felled since 1990, according to the study, which focused on Indonesian deforestation from 1991 to 2020.

A man uses a motorcycle to transport palm fruit at...

A man uses a motorcycle to transport palm fruit at a plantation in Polewali Mandar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, April 21, 2024. Vast swathes of Indonesia’s old-growth forests are left undeveloped for years after they’re felled and when the land is finally put to use, it’s most often for new palm oil plantations, according to a new study. Credit: AP/Yusuf Wahil

Despite an uptick in 2023, deforestation has slowed overall in recent years compared to peak rates of the past few decades, said Parker. While 8.8 million hectares (33,977 square miles) of Indonesia's deforested lands remain vacant, 7.8 million hectares (30,116 square miles) has been converted into palm oil plantations since 2020, according to the report.

“About 80% of mechanically cleared idle land that was converted to a productive use became a palm oil plantation,” Parker wrote in a press release. “This means that the true environmental impact of palm oil is likely much larger than the area planted immediately after forest loss, and is potentially larger than the total deforested area currently planted with oil palms.”

The Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry did not comment when asked by AP.

Experts lamented the clearing that has led to idle land, but some wondered if it might wind up being a boon for Indonesia as it contends with governments and companies seeking to eliminate deforestation from commodity supply chains.

A swath of forest on a hill that has been...

A swath of forest on a hill that has been cleared from trees to make way for a corn plantation is visible in Polewali Mandar, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, April 20, 2024. Vast swathes of Indonesia’s old-growth forests are left undeveloped for years after they’re felled and when the land is finally put to use, it’s most often for new palm oil plantations, according to a new study. Credit: AP/Yusuf Wahil

For example, under the European Union Deforestation Policy — set to be implemented later this year and strongly contested by Indonesia's government — certain commodities, including palm oil, cannot be imported into the EU if they were produced on land deforested after 2020.

“The fact that Indonesia has so much land that is idle today means that it could — if managed properly — increase agricultural outputs, for various commodities without clearing more forest,” said David Gaveau, an environmental scientist and founder of The TreeMap, which tracks environmental degradation. “Let's put it to use, for more agriculture rather than converting new forests.”

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