Global health, science and practice 2018 03 306(1) 210-222 doi 10.9745/GHSP-D-17-00132
Palm oil consumption is potentially deleterious to human health, and its production has resulted in 11 million hectares of deforestation globally. Importing roughly 394,000 metric tons of palm oil in 2012 alone, the Burmese government has recently pushed for intensive oil palm development to sate domestic demand for consumption and become international market players. Given well-studied linkages between biodiversity loss and ecosystem instability, this study aims to characterize the nature of deforestation for oil palm production in Myanmar, its relationship to increased biodiversity loss, and contextualize the potential impacts of this loss on diets and human health in rural Myanmar.
First, a GIS land suitability analysis overlaying spatial data on rainfall, elevation, and slope was conducted in order to identify areas of Myanmar best suited to oil palm tree growth. Second, after narrowing the geographic range, vegetation indices using varying spectral band models in ENVI (Environment for Visualizing Images) allowed a more granular examination of changes in vegetation phenology from 1975 to 2015. Lastly, ground truthing permitted an in-person verification of GIS and ENVI results and provided contextual understanding of oil palm development in Myanmar.
GIS analysis revealed that the Tanintharyi Region, one of the most biodiverse regions in Myanmar, is highly suitable for oil palm growth. Next, vegetation indices revealed a progressive shift from smallholder farming, with little observable deforestation between 1975 and 1990, to industrial oil palm plantations all throughout Tanintharyi starting around 2000-a shift concomitant with biodiversity loss of primary forestland. Ground truthing indicated that plantation development has advanced rapidly, though not without barriers to growth.
If these trends of Burmese oil palm intensification continue, 4 key outcomes may follow: (1) even higher levels of biodiversity loss, (2) increased access and affordability of edible palm oil, (3) decreased importing of palm oil, and (4) large profits made from selling excess palm oil on the international market. Although the first 2 outcomes may adversely affect low-income Burmese populations, the latter 2 may bode well for the domestic economy and international trade partners, thus encouraging competing interests. This increased domestic access and affordability of palm oil may increase consumption and cause increased prevalence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. Finally, this biodiversity loss concurrent with industrial deforestation may disproportionately impact vulnerable, rural communities.