Remote sensing brings new transparency

From Khor Reports's Palm Oil Newsletter #6 Jan/Feb 2014

New transparency

The use of remote-sensing technologies in the industry are in its early stages while some NGOs are also advanced users. Aerial sensor technologies use images from satellites and drones, to detect and classify objects on the surface; saving the need to be on the ground. Given the importance of its applications, expanding availability of cost-effective data sets, equipment and services, it is set to grow. We look at three usages: the first informs biofuels policy and two have significant potential impact.

1. Setting biofuels policy

To help set biofuels policy, the International Council on Clean Transportation or ICCT needed to know and project how much oil palm is developed on peat. Satellite images were used to estimate the area of expansion 1990-2010: Data sets used include 1990 GeoCover with 28.5 m spatial resolution, 2007 Satellite Pour l’Observation de la Terre (SPOT) satellite images with high spatial resolution (10–20 m) . Spatial resolution refers to how close two features can be within an image and still be recorded as distinct.

Four maps presenting the extent and distribution of industrial oil palm plantations on peatland in 1990, 2000, 2007, and 2010 in Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo were produced from the high resolution data sets with visual interpretation. The reported producer’s and user’s accuracies of 96% to 97%, suggest “high reliability” of the maps produced by this approach For 2007 through 2010, the area on peat increased 190,000 ha/year and “taking Indonesia and Malaysia together, the linear projections imply a 32% rate of palm expansion onto peat soils.” This is a key data point for biofuels policies in various developed markets. It is contested by the palm oil industry which: i) argues against the use of a simple projection from past to future, ii) points to the need for updated peatland area maps, iii) laments the poor scientific basis for voluntary policies against shallow peatland use, and the general lack of tropical peat studies. Why is less than 50 cm peat not considered by some voluntary standards? This is the depth set by the US Department of Agriculture to classify organic from peat soils [1].

2. Upstream planning & management

Satellite images are often used in due diligence studies on acquisitions. Plantations can also use satellite or drone-acquired images for topographic mapping, to help in planning for drainage, planting terraces, and planting patterns on slopes. RSPO also asks companies to produce accurate maps to identify areas with slope over 25 degrees* and 300 m above sea level. Interestingly, there is work to establish spectrum responses for early detection of chloropyll and moisture stress for better management. Can a narrow band even pick up on certain diseases? Previously, 4-5 bands were available and now 300 bands of specific wavelengths can detect variations [2].

3. NGOs bring “radical transparency”

Technical NGOs are actively using imagery from satellites to monitor plantation activity. The WWF has also started to use drones in conservation projects. External monitoring of peat smog fire hot spots were speedily done with accuracy in the 2013 record-breaking Sumatran peat smog season. Back in n 1997 hot spots could be 1km out and a hot zinc roof might also be mistaken for a fire [2]. Now, high resolutions including 2.5 meter resolution can pinpoint with confidence.
World Resources Institute (WRI) has its Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative that is seeking palm oil supply chain clients. “(Using) near real-time satellite monitoring technology, forest management, and company concession maps, protected areas maps, mobile technology, crowd-sourced data, and
on-the-ground networks to promote transparency in forests around the world (15 Nov 2013, Similarly, The Forest Trust (TFT) plans “To bring more transparency to a complicated forestry supply chain… (it) developed a monitoring tool that allows companies to convey real-time radical transparency in supply chains.” TFT’s tool is piloted for Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), with a dashboard that “allows the company to display detailed data going beyond compliance and displaying implementation of sustainability commitments (on 2.6 million hectares).” “In February 2013, after working closely with leading NGOs, APP launched a new Forest Conservation Policy… with a range of stakeholders” (15 Nov 2013, As TFT also leads Wilmar, the above appears likely for Wilmar’s new policies and approach for palm oil.

Separately, we hear from NGO specialists they NGOs are ready to report on plantation impacts (Khor Reports interview, Nov 2013). This could mean that there will soon be contested reports in this vein: Plantation A has cleared an estimated X hectares and Y tonnes of high carbon stock since a cut of date, e.g. Nov   2005; with a breakdown by estimated non-peat and peat land area, HCV vs non-HCV etc. NGOs lacked accurate concession boundaries data. However, at the recent RSPO General Assembly, a resolution for growers to submit soft copies of their geovector boundaries was passed. These will be posted on the RSPO website for public access and use. While new corporate-ready technical NGOs such as TFT and WRI seek to provide radical transparency solutions for plantations, there will be others who may use the same data and approach for campaigning purposes. There are many possible users and usages, once technology costs have fallen as they have, and the necessary crucial private data is released. Eyes wide open!

[1] “Historical Analysis and Projection of Oil Palm Plantation Expansion on Peatland in Southeast Asia” by J Miettinen et al. White Paper Number 17 | February 2012. Indirect Effects of Biofuel Production.
[2] Khor Reports visited Applied Agricultural Resources Sdn Bhd, 10 Dec 2013, on technical updates. In future newsletters: carbon measurements, pests & diseases, genome prospects, and the politics of peat science.

Look out for Khor Reports' Palm Oil Newsletter #6, Jan/Feb 2014! This article is a sneak preview article from this issue (delayed in publication process).

Khor Reports blog exclusive note: Industry sources tell us that Wilmar's new procurement policy is being activated with a request for detailed maps and information about their supplier's land banks. This dovetails with RSPO policies in a way that could make transparent the maps for many plantation companies in the larger categories. If you are a RSPO member, you need to disclose and/or if you are a Wilmar supplier.

Update for reader comment *Enjoyed reading your article but I was wondering whether for point number 2 on Upstream planning and management’s paragraph line 5, the slope which RSPO ask companies to identify was 25 degrees rather than 25%. 45 degrees is equal to 100%. The 25 degrees is threshold slope for land development in the land code for Sabah and Sarawak whilst in the Peninsular, it is 20 degrees.