Deforestation for palm oil production in Malaysian Borneo. Photos by Rhett A. Butler.
Last week, the London-based think tank Innovation Forum convened a two-day conference on the subject of sustainable forestry in Washington, D.C. Titled “How Business Can Tackle Deforestation,” the conference brought together leaders from both public and private spheres, including forest commodities companies, NGOs and think tanks. Though the topics of discussion were diverse, ranging from the role of “green” certification to the viability of GMO crops, there was widespread agreement that significant changes need to be made to current supply chain policies if we are to avoid further damaging the world’s forests.
This conference was only the most recent of a wave of high-profile events that have pushed more responsible forest stewardship to the forefront of public attention. In September 2014, the New York Declaration, which pledged to halve deforestation by 2020 and achieve zero deforestation by 2030, was signed at the UN Climate Summit by over 80 companies, governments and indigenous groups. Multiple major consumer goods companies, including Colgate-Palmolive, Mars and Procter & Gamble, have followed the lead of Asia Pulp and Paper (the world’s second largest pulp and paper producer), Wilmar (the world’s largest palm oil producer), and Golden-Agri Resources (the Indonesian palm oil giant that adopted the first zero deforestation policy in the sector) in declaring their commitment to achieving zero deforestation in their supply chains.
Many of these groups have stated their aim as the attainment of “zero deforestation.” However, others have raised concerns over the term, and what the policy actually means in practice. In a recent position paper, the Rainforest Alliance warned that zero deforestation commitments may not be enough to protect the world’s forests, due to two reasons. Firstly, though many major companies have signed up for these commitments, many other producers and buyers will not. These companies will continue to rely on deforestation to produce their goods, unless a way is found to address underlying issues, such as growing worldwide demand for forest products and the inefficiency of existing production methods. This is a particular problem for highly fragmented industries such as palm oil, where 40% of the annual crop is produced by smallholders who often plant inferior varieties which yield much less tonnage per hectare.
An illegal logging operation in Borneo. Zero-deforestation commitments made by major companies may not affect small-scale or illegal operations. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Secondly, focusing solely on deforestation risks drawing attention away from other business practices within the commodities supply chain which may deserve equally urgent attention. Examples of such issues include water scarcity, pesticide use, community land rights, violations of labor law, and forest degradation through logging. Few of the frameworks for achieving zero deforestation that have been laid out by these companies take such issues into account.
In addition, the use of “zero deforestation” as a catchphrase is problematic because there remains no clear agreement over what the term means. Deforestation generally refers to the conversion of primary or secondary natural forest to less biologically diverse uses, such as agriculture or timber farming. On the other hand, selective logging of well-defined tracts of natural forest is essential for the livelihood of many communities, and should not be considered as deforestation. There is also confusion over the terms “zero deforestation” and “zero net deforestation,” which are used in similar contexts but refer to very different things. While “zero deforestation” refers to the prevention of any forest clearance, “zero net deforestation” refers to the replacement of logged forest with an equivalent area of new forest through replanting. However, it is difficult to ensure that the area that is replanted is equivalent to the area that is logged, and even more difficult to ensure that no environmental impacts or losses in biodiversity are incurred in the process. This makes “zero net deforestation” a much more complex and unreliable strategy.
Environmental watchers say that an overall network of sustainability is needed to translate the ambitious declarations made by companies into results. Louis Verchot, director of CIFOR’s forests and environment program, sees these commitments as a step towards the realization of “synergies” between sectors, and the creation of action plans by governments that go beyond the purview of forestry and environment ministries. The Rainforest Alliance emphasizes the need for greater education, auditing and transparency, so that consumers know the impact of what they are buying and are able to trust companies’ sustainability claims.
A reforestation project using native species in Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Overall, watchers agree that there is a need to shift towards more comprehensive governance, greater engagement with all parties in the supply chain, and focusing on being more productive, rather than simply doing less harm. Though a commendable step in the right direction, “zero deforestation” commitments need to be backed up with comprehensive action plans if they are to deliver credible results.