The Effects of Palm Oil Deforestation

by Lillian Pao (’18)

Fig. 1: The production of palm oil, often found in the tropics, can cause deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

Palm oil is harvested from the African oil palm cash crop and is used in cooking oil, fast foods, cosmetic products, and household cleaners. Because of the demand for these products, the production of palm oil in the humid tropics continues to increase and often leads to deforestation of tropical forests.  Professor Varsha Vijay from Duke University and his colleagues decided to identify where oil palm has replaced tropical forests to predict future deforestation. They also wanted to learn more about the impacts of deforestation on biodiversity.

Dr. Vijay and his team studied oil palm plantations in 20 different countries within South America, Central America, Mesoamerica, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Using Google Earth high-resolution and Landsat 8 imagery, the researchers visually identified the pattern of individual oil palm trees. From Google Earth, they were able to verify sample sites and improve the spatial distribution between the sites of each country. Furthermore, a Global Agro-Ecological Zone (GAEZ) model measured the sustainability of the crops planted under varying conditions. This model also tested for future suitable areas for oil palm development.

The study was able to conclude that South America, Asia, and Guinea are undergoing rapid transition to plantation, which results in higher deforestation.  On the other hand, the amount forests used for oil palm planting in Africa in expected to increase by 2080. There were high rates of forest loss for oil palm production across Asia and South America. Most forests vulnerable to oil palm, such as Africa and South America, have high biodiversity. Government regulations, enforcement of regulations, and the large buyers and sellers of the palm oil contribute to the effects of the high rates of forest loss for palm oil production.



  1. Varsha et al., The impacts of oil palm on recent deforestation and biodiversity loss. Plos One (2016). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0159668.
  2. Image retrieved from:



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