Our work in Indonesia

Palm oil and deforestation

Palm oil is omnipresent as an ingredient in food, detergents, and even as biodiesel fuel. Yet, its production makes a significant contribution to the clearing of tropical rainforests and associated greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in Southeast Asia. Between 1995 and 2015, Indonesia, the worldwide leading producer, lost an estimated 117,000 ha of forest annually due to oil palm expansion, accounting for around one-quarter of all deforestation in the country. Given land availability and global consumption trends, in the absence of deforestation restrictions, global models estimate that a further 7.5–21.1 million ha of Indonesian forests for oil palm is likely to be converted between 2010–2030.

No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation commitments

Since 2010, numerous food, cosmetics, and other consumer goods companies have pledged to eliminate deforestation from their palm oil supply chains. Large traders and palm oil processing companies followed. In 2020, over 300 companies now have zero-deforestation commitments, covering around 83% of palm oil refining capacity in Southeast Asia. Most such commitments have come in the form of NDPE policies, committing to 1) no deforestation of forests with high carbon stock or high conservation value; 2) no planting on peatland, which releases high amounts of CO2 and makes areas prone to fires; and 3) tackling the exploitation of workers and communities in a sector that has long grappled with land conflicts.

Our research deals with a significant knowledge gap: How are these ambitious zero deforestation commitments implemented in the field? What measures are companies taking to ensure that their commitments actually prevent deforestation? Can certain measures better prevent small farmers from being disadvantaged and instead strengthen them? What role does government support and regulation play in achieving better ecological and social results?

Research approach

We tackle these questions by pursuing mixed-methods research, which combines a number of different evidence sources: we classify different policy approaches and map out their spatial reach, trace palm oil buyers to the mills and relevant supply bases, conduct interviews along the value chain, survey palm oil growers on the ground, and use satellite images to compare the effects of different policy measures.

Our research in Indonesia is supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation Project funding (Div. I-​III), the European Research Council, ETH Zurich’s World Food System Centre’s Fond Welternährungssystem, and ETH4D’s Faculty Exchange program. Our partner institution on the ground is IPB University’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development Studies. We also work with colleagues at the University of Santa Barbara and New York University. See more information on our full team here!

News and insights from the Indonesia team

Research collaboration with Musim Mas

16.02.22 Palm oil major, Musim Mas Group (Musim Mas or “the Group”), ETH Zurich, and IPB University (or the Institut Pertanian Bogor) in Indonesia, are delighted to announce a research collaboration for five years. The collaboration aims to investigate the conditions under which supply chain sustainability initiatives can lead to reduced deforestation in the palm oil sector in Indonesia while safeguarding producers’ inclusion. In particular, the joint research will measure how Musim Mas’ Smallholder Programs, such as the Smallholder Hubs, can contribute to such sustainability goals.

Together with Musim Mas, our team will collaborate to produce longitudinal research on oil palm smallholders and measure the impact of its work on smallholders. Starting in December 2021 in Sumatra, Indonesia, the study will be one of the first in the industry to see what it takes to balance environmental and economic considerations for supply chain initiatives to work.

Research exchange ETH Zurich – IPB

16.01.21 With funding support from ETH4D‘s Faculty Exchange grant, we are delighted to host IPB lecturer Dr. Nia Kurniawati Hidayat for 3 months at the Environmental Policy Lab. During her time, Dr. Hidayat will map out current sustainability initiatives targeting palm oil smallholders in Indonesia and assess their ability to contribute to sustainable livelihood pathways.

Image: Janina Grabs, Nia Kurniawati Hidayat, Adelina Chandra

Expansion of research team

01.11.20 With the successful funding of the SNF project “Assessing the effectiveness and equity of ZDC implementation in the palm oil sector”, we were fortunate to hire Adelina Chandra as PhD researcher and welcome her in the EPL team. Adelina previously worked for WRI Indonesia and USAID and holds a MSc in Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science from Lund University.

Exploratory field visit

25.02.20 With funding support from the World Food System Centre’s Fonds Welternährungssystem, and hosted by IPB CARDS and OPAL research team members, project lead Janina Grabs was able to conduct a first exploratory field visit to Indonesia, visiting Jakarta, Bogor as well as East Kalimantan and gathering interviews on stakeholder perceptions of NDPE implementation.

Image: Arya Hadi Dharmawan, Janina Grabs, Nia Kurniawati Hidayat, Dyah Ita Mardiyaningsih, and Faris Rahmadian

Impressions from the field