New plantations can either cause deforestation by replacing natural forests or avoid this by using previously cleared areas. The extent of these two situations is contested in tropical biodiversity hotspots where objective data are limited. Here, we explore delays between deforestation and the establishment of industrial tree plantations on Borneo using satellite imagery. Between 1973 and 2015 an estimated 18.7 Mha of Borneo’s old-growth forest were cleared (14.4 Mha and 4.2 Mha in Indonesian and Malaysian Borneo). Industrial plantations expanded by 9.1 Mha (7.8 Mha oil-palm; 1.3 Mha pulpwood). Approximately 7.0 Mha of the total plantation area in 2015 (9.2 Mha) were old-growth forest in 1973, of which 4.5-4.8 Mha (24-26% of Borneo-wide deforestation) were planted within five years of forest clearance (3.7-3.9 Mha oil-palm; 0.8-0.9 Mha pulpwood). This rapid within-five-year conversion has been greater in Malaysia than in Indonesia (57-60% versus 15-16%). In Indonesia, a higher proportion of oil-palm plantations was developed on already cleared degraded lands (a legacy of recurrent forest fires). However, rapid conversion of Indonesian forests to industrial plantations has increased steeply since 2005. We conclude that plantation industries have been the principle driver of deforestation in Malaysian Borneo over the last four decades. In contrast, their role in deforestation in Indonesian Borneo was less marked, but has been growing recently. We note caveats in interpreting these results and highlight the need for greater accountability in plantation development.