Environmentalists on Friday (Dec 13) urged Indonesia, the world's top palm oil grower, to follow the lead of rival producer Malaysia by allowing plantation and land maps to be made public to help fight deforestation and forest fires.
Industry watchdog the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), published members' land maps for Peninsular Malaysia and the state of Sarawak on Thursday (Dec 12) after being given legal go-ahead to do so by the Malaysian Government.
"It is a great step forward for transparency and accountability," said Darrel Webber, chief executive of the Kuala Lumpur-based RSPO.
"We hope this move will bring greater objectivity to discussions on fires and other topics that have sometimes been attributed to the palm oil sector," he said.
Palm oil is the world's most widely used edible oil, found in everything from margarine to biscuits, and soap to soups.
But the industry has come under scrutiny in recent years from green activists and consumers, who have blamed it for forest loss and fires, as well as exploitation of workers.
Indonesia and Malaysia, who produce about 85% of the world's palm oil, have long been urged by green groups to publish maps of where companies have been given land for palm oil plantations to allow third parties to better monitor forests and pledges on deforestation made by growers.
"This is a true game-changer," Denise Westerhout, a markets specialist at WWF International, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Only the maps for Sabah have been publicly available for Malaysia, so it's great to see the maps for Sarawak and peninsular be given the green light."
Malaysia's move will promote trust, make it easier to monitor forest fires and deforestation, and help identify companies and supply chains working in areas that violate industry commitments to curb deforestation, she added.
Environmentalists noted that the RSPO, which includes producers, traders, buyers and green groups in about 90 countries, has been trying to make its members' concession maps publicly available since 2013.
Indonesia's Supreme Court has ruled that Jakarta must make its palm oil concessions public, Greenpeace says, but to date the government has resisted.
"The Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that oil palm plantation concession data is public information," said Annisa Rahmawati, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.
"The RSPO should go ahead and publish a complete set of Indonesian maps immediately."
Andika Putraditama, sustainable commodities and business manager at the World Resources Institute Indonesia, a think tank, praised the "positive development and strong signal from the government of Malaysia".
Concession boundaries and mill locations - as well as other transparent data - are essential in measuring a company's performance in avoiding deforestation within their supply chain, he added.
"Governments should encourage palm oil growers, traders, and buyers to be more transparent in regards to their operation," he said.
"A strong signal from governments that transparency is necessary would go a long way to accelerate the transformation of the palm oil industry to be more sustainable."