When is tree-cutting deforestation? Palm oil companies set their definition

Signatories to the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto — a group of major palm oil growers and traders as well as end users like agribusiness companies — have released the final High Carbon Stock Science Study proposing a new methodology for sustainable development of the controversial commodity.

When is tree-cutting deforestation? Palm oil companies set their definition
  • “We believe this Study gives the industry a unique opportunity to reconcile its wholly legitimate economic interests with the critical need to protect forests, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and support the rights and wellbeing of local communities and smallholders,” Jonathon Porritt, co-chair of the HCS Science Study Steering Committee, said in a statement.
  • A draft of the report released in October was found wanting by conservationists and other forest experts, however, who were critical of the fact that the SPOM study did not aim to stop all deforestation but instead relied on an ecosystem’s carbon content to measure the sustainability of converting it to a palm plantation.
  • Perhaps the biggest point of contention is the aboveground carbon stock threshold of 75 metric tons of carbon per hectare (tC/ha) proposed in the draft study as acceptable for “carbon neutral” land conversion, which would leave a class of forests known as “young regenerating forest” open to being cleared for more oil palm.

Signatories to the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto (SPOM) — a group of major palm oil growers and traders as well as end users like agribusiness companies — have released the final High Carbon Stock Science Study proposing a new methodology for sustainable development of the controversial commodity.

“We believe this Study gives the industry a unique opportunity to reconcile its wholly legitimate economic interests with the critical need to protect forests, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and support the rights and wellbeing of local communities and smallholders,” Jonathon Porritt, co-chair of the HCS Science Study Steering Committee, said in a statement.

A draft of the report released in October was found wanting by conservationists and other forest experts who were critical of the fact that the methodology laid out in the study does not aim to stop all deforestation but instead seeks to lay out a methodology for achieving zero net carbon emissions, meaning it relies on an ecosystem’s carbon content as the primary measure of the sustainability of converting it to a palm plantation.

Perhaps the biggest point of contention was the aboveground carbon stock threshold of 75 metric tons of carbon per hectare (tC/ha) proposed in the draft study as acceptable for “carbon neutral” land conversion, which would leave a class of forests known as “young regenerating forest” open to being cleared for more oil palm.

That threshold is retained in the final document released by SPOM this week, known as the HCS+ Study. SPOM said in a statement accompanying the study’s release, “By setting critical carbon thresholds, the HCS+ methodology will prevent conversion of old-growth forests, forests regrowing after selective harvesting, and well-established secondary forests. The thresholds will also ensure that peat and other organic soils are set aside.”

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Oil palm plantation and mangroves in Borneo. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Dr. Simon Lord, Group Chief Sustainability Officer at Malaysian palm oil producer Sime Darby, a SPOM signatory, told Mongabay that the HCS+ Study does not ignore the fact that a threshold of 75 tC/ha allows very young forests to be cleared.

But he says that will only be the case “providing that the whole development is carbon neutral, that the soil carbon threshold is not breached and that HCV [High Conservation Value] and FPIC [Free and Prior Informed Consent] are fully implemented.”

Deforestation and draining of peatlands cause massive amounts of carbon to be released into the atmosphere, so palm producers operating under the HCS+ methodology would be required to set aside some forests to ensure new oil palm developments are carbon neutral.

“A carbon neutral oil palm concession produces zero net carbon emissions to the atmosphere in the first planting cycle, and encourages development on low carbon lands,” according to the SPOM statement on the release of the final study.

“Carbon losses from forest conversion can be balanced against ongoing carbon sequestration in protected set-aside forests, as well as in oil palm plantations established on lower carbon stock lands.”

With palm oil still a very hot commodity on the global market, some land clearance for new palm plantations is virtually inevitable. Lord sees the HCS+ methodology as a good compromise between the need for economic development in poorer countries and conservation of the most valuable forests and peatlands.

“The HCS+ Technical Committee maintained its independence throughout and reached a consensus that responsible development based on carbon balance with thresholds for soil and forests of 75tC/ha was the most likely model to succeed in preserving forests through enabling some balanced development,” he said.

HCS+: Reinventing the wheel?

Many forest conservationists aren’t convinced that carbon neutrality is the right measure of sustainability. Greenpeace, for instance, issued a statement saying the HCS+ methodology treats forests like “mere sticks of carbon in a carbon-neutral equation.”

“While ‘carbon neutral development’ may sound simple, achieving it on the ground is enormously difficult when safeguards, uncertainties, on- or off-site carbon offsets, equity of benefits, and monitoring are considered,” the Greenpeace statement said. “We see massive holes in the HCS Study’s carbon neutral approach that can decrease the ‘No Deforestation’ commitments that already run.”

In referring to the “No Deforestation” commitments already in existence, Greenpeace is specifically talking about the HCS Approach, which has been in development since 2011 and has already been adopted by some of the largest companies in the plantation sector including APP, Wilmar, Cargill and GAR, consumer companies like Unilever and Procter & Gamble, and leading NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund, the Rainforest Action Network, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace and the Forest Peoples Programme.

Another major criticism of the draft HCS+ Study when it was released in October was that it was essentially a recapitulation of the process those stakeholders and industry heavyweights had gone through to create the HCS Approach, with the main difference being that the HCS+ Study was steered entirely by the plantation, manufacturer and consumer companies that are SPOM signatories.

Some forests experts concluded that the HCS+ Study was not only unnecessary but likely to be far less effective. “In attempting to reinvent the HCS wheel, the SPOM study falls far short of meeting consumer demands,” Calen May-Tobin, a policy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative, wrote in a blog post when the draft HCS+ Study was released.

It seems the SPOM members took this point into consideration, because they have committed to field trials to evaluate the HCS+ methodology and compare it to the HCS Approach.

Many companies, like Cargill, have already implemented the HCS Approach on millions of hectares of land in five countries. Now the agribusiness giant says it will be performing HCS+ methodology trials, as well.

“Our teams gained valuable experience in HCS assessments from our first project in 2013, and are now able to perform such assessments in-house,” John Hartmann, CEO of Cargill Tropical Palm, said in a statement. “With the final HCS+ methodology now available, we hope to include crucial socio-economic considerations that are key to the sustainable production of palm oil.”

Sime Darby’s Simon Lord says that there is need for a “convergence” of the two models. “In both systems a patch analysis of small (10 ha [about 24.7 acre]) blocks of remnant forest would reveal where these blocks are at risk from degradation by local communities and gives the option for these to be cleared if deemed unviable in the long term,” he said.

“But I think there is a more fundamental question that needs to be trialled which is what exactly do land use images tell us when carbon is used as a proxy for forests?” Lord added. “Is the difference, in reality, that great between the two methods? When an applied risk assessment is made through the patch analysis and associated decision tree, a combination of approaches would bring a truly sustainable outcome.”

Though he can not foretell which methodology will preserve the most forest in the long run, Lord is hopeful that an analysis of both in the field will yield the best possible methodology for sustainable palm development. New Britain Palm Oil Limited, a Sime Darby subsidiary, is a member company of the HCS Approach, which Lord said has not been proven in all landscapes.

“The HCS Approach acknowledges that the methodology that was proven in fragmented forests may need some adjustment to work in highly forested regions,” Lord told Mongabay. “In such areas, without jurisdictional support authorities may completely abandon the Approach by citing national development prerogatives.”

Lord says the HCS+ method binds companies to forest conservation as an integral part of their carbon neutrality “rather than running the risk that these forests are excised out of convenience as we have so often seen with areas identified as HCV.”

Environmentalists say human rights, land rights inadequately protected

Gemma Tillack of the Rainforest Action Network is not eager to see the HCS+ methodology, so far only implemented in one field test in Gabon, applied more broadly. She says the methodology is based on an industrial palm oil plantation model developed in Indonesia and Malaysia that has led to the widespread destruction of forests and peatlands as well as an “unacceptable pattern” of land grabbing, social conflict, forced evictions and worker exploitation.

“If this model is replicated in new regions, such as in remote parts of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Central and West Africa, it will lead to further deforestation and corporate takeover of community-owned lands, instead of supporting rights and community-based models of truly responsible development,” Tillack said in a statement.

Tillack is critical of the methodology allowing companies to offset ongoing deforestation in palm oil concession areas by setting aside forests in other landholdings, which she calls “a dangerous loophole.” She also says that the expansion of the large-scale concession palm oil model recommended in the HCS+ Study is not adequately balanced by worker safety protections or safeguards that will ensure land rights and sustainable livelihoods for Indigenous peoples and other local communities.

“Given that the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto (SPOM) companies, such as Kuala Lumpur Kepong (KLK), have a litany of human rights abuses in their current operations, this is a grave omission,” Tillack added.

She argues that, ultimately, the HCS+ “will not meet the expectations of a growing number of consumers who refuse to buy products that are driving the destruction of the world’s last forests and violating the rights of communities and workers.”

Simon Lord, however, insists that implementation of the HCS+ methodology alongside field tests of the HCS Approach is a responsible step forward, though he for one is open to adjusting the methodology as time goes on.

“I wonder,” he said, “if the ambition of carbon neutrality is enough or whether looking at sources and sinks of emissions we can move to demonstrate carbon positive development. Perhaps the HCS Approach, in the light of the Paris commitments to a carbon neutral future, could also look at this?”

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