Palm oil is one of the most widely traded vegetable oils worldwide, with projected demand still increasing. Our previous work has linked the expansion of oil palm plantations with deforestation in South America, especially in Peru where more than half the areas currently in oil palm production were deforested between 2000-2014. We evaluated the spatial patterns of deforestation for oil palm versus deforestation for other types of agriculture in the Peruvian Moist Tropics. We first developed a comprehensive data set of palm oil plantations from high resolution imagery, a dataset of large plantations of other crops (primarily cacao), and an estimate of cropland area based on the European Space Agency Climate Change Initiative Land Cover product (ESACCI v.1.6.1). We evaluated deforestation using forest loss data (2000-2014) from Peruvian Ministry of the Environment. We combined these datasets and performed a region grouping analysis resulted in patches of deforestation for oil palm that could be compared to patches of other types of agriculture. We characterized the distribution of patches in each class in terms of size, spatial clustering, distance to urban areas and roads, elevation and slope, agro-ecological suitability, and ecoregion.
We found that areas being developed for oil palm in Peru differ from deforestation associated with other types of development. Unlike other agriculture, oil palm plantations occur entirely within the tropical moist biome. Within this biome, oil palm represents a large threat to ecoregions that have not been greatly impacted by other forms of agriculture . Furthermore, the average patch size of deforestation for oil palm is larger than for other types of agriculture in the moist forest (153% larger on average), with more than 50% of the oil palm area occurring in 5 patches out of more than 1200. Oil palm also occupies a biophysical envelope distinct from most other crops, at lower elevations and flatter terrain, making replacement of existing cropland areas with oil palm a difficult proposition. We conclude that the emergence of oil palm development could represent a novel threat to the biodiversity of this region.