KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Researchers have created for the first time a detailed map that will help buyers and consumers of palm oil work out whether the supply chain is harming forests on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo.
Developed over the past year, the "Borneo Atlas" was unveiled this week by the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
The map shows the location and ownership of 467 palm-oil mills on Borneo, which is shared by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, and is one of the biggest island producers of the cheap, edible oil.
"It is the most comprehensive data set so far," David Gaveau, an environmental scientist at CIFOR, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Mapping of palm mills is more than 90 percent complete for the whole island, he added.
To create the Borneo Atlas, CIFOR researchers sifted through online and other documents published by companies, non-governmental organisations, palm-oil certification agencies, mapping websites and social media networks.
A tool linked to the Borneo Atlas will use regularly updated satellite imagery to show a 10-km (6-mile) radius around each mill, detailing its impact on nearby forested areas and any expansion of existing plantations.
Users can also bring up a high-resolution image of each palm mill using Google Maps.
It is hoped the new map will help palm oil buyers and traders trace their supply chain more clearly, and identify whether it is tainted with deforestation, said Gaveau.
"By showing plantations, mills and all (the) infrastructure associated, people will be able to realise the full impact of palm oil planting on forests," he said.
CIFOR is now collaborating with the World Resources Institute think tank and Greenpeace to improve land ownership identification for the atlas.
Next year, it will add ports used by the palm mills to ship the vegetable oil, and it is also working to identify which banks are funding plantation developments.
"We use it for investigations and to educate people about deforestation," said Zhang Wen, executive director at Singapore environment group People's Movement to Stop Haze. "It holds companies accountable for the change of the landscape."
CIFOR plans to team up with Trase, an online transparency platform which could help link ports with European importers, exporters and buyers to complete the supply chain.
Palm oil, used in thousands of household products from snack foods to soaps, as well as to make biodiesel, has come under increasing fire in Europe for causing forest destruction.
Borneo, the world's third largest island, has about 8.3 million hectares of oil palm plantations.
Environmental activists have pressured consumer companies into demanding that their palm oil suppliers adopt more environmentally sustainable forestry practices.
CIFOR has now begun working on a similar project mapping Indonesia's other key palm-producing island of Sumatra.
"This is just the start," said Gaveau. "The idea is that we will have much more advanced systems in the future that will hold companies accountable for their environmental commitments."