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Airbus to marshal its satellites against deforestation

  • Starling is a new service developed by Airbus, The Forest Trust and SarVision.
  • Palm oil suppliers can use it to verify their compliance with their customers’ zero-deforestation policies.
  • Starling, which will be sold to companies, is meant as a compliment to Global Forest Watch, a publicly available platform that anyone can use to track deforestation in near-real time.
  • Starling is more powerful than Global Forest Watch, with the ability to see through clouds and zoom in close enough to count the trees.

One of the world’s largest aerospace companies is enlisting its satellites in the fight to save forests.

That’s the aim of Starling, a new service developed by Airbus Defence and Space, nonprofit The Forest Trust (TFT) and remote-sensing specialist SarVision.

Food giants Nestlé and Ferrero, two of the top users of palm oil — a ubiquitious commodity whose production has fueled economic growth but also deforestation in countries like Indonesia — hope Starling will help them clean up their vast supply networks. The two multinationals announced on Monday they would pilot the service before it hits the market in early 2017.

Despite a raft of pledges by major refiners and users of palm oil to purge their supply chains of forest and peatland destruction, none has yet managed to even identify the origins of everything it buys — an early prerequisite for any “mission accomplished” declaration by corporations who say they intend to “transform the industry.”

Starling alone will not enable them to do that. The big refiners obtain much of the palm fruit and oil they process from third parties, whose own suppliers (and suppliers’ suppliers, and suppliers’ suppliers’ suppliers) are often a mystery to the refiners themselves. This convolution is at the center of why the sector’s downstream giants — refiners like Wilmar International and Golden Agri-Resources; and consumer goods manufacturers like Nestlé and Ferrero — have been unable to map their supply chains to the plantation level, as promised.

What Starling will provide is a tool for good suppliers to show they are doing well — a potentially transformative step, according to TFT CEO Bastien Sachet.

A palm oil mill in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay
In the middle of an oil palm plantation, a mill turns palm fruit into crude palm oil. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Today, the big refiners appear to be doing little to actively monitor their suppliers’ compliance with their commitments. It is with startling ease that NGOs like Greenomics and Rainforest Action Network (RAN) are able to expose environmental destruction and labor abuses in their supply chains, which in some instances has pressed them to cut ties with errant firms.

The problem, said Sachet, is that the threat of punishment, while important, has been overemphasized to the point that the medium-sized companies responsible for much of the sector’s upstream activities — the growing and milling of palm fruit and oil, as opposed to the refinement of crude palm oil into chemicals used in everything from snack foods to cosmetics and laundry detergent — have been alienated from the movement to make the industry sustainable.

“This change journey is not controlled by the producers — it’s still controlled by the activist NGOs,” Sachet told Mongabay. “And that’s not sustainable; it cannot generate change in the long term.”

Even with the buyers and refiners pressing for a drastic change of course, “we have not succeeded in getting the mid-size companies to take ownership of that change journey,” he said. “And they are pushing back.”

Improved technology

The prospect of Starling prompts inevitable comparisons with Global Forest Watch (GFW), launched in 2014 by thinktank the World Resources Institute to enable monitoring of forests on a monthly basis.

The publicly available platform leverages Google’s computing power to make sense of staggering amounts of NASA satellite data; but it’s less precise than Starling, which can zoom in close enough to count the trees, and see through the clouds that so often blanket the tropics where oil palm is grown. Crucially, Starling updates every six to 10 days. And its advanced algorithms, pioneered by SarVision, allow it to distinguish between a greater variety of landscape types and features than GFW, which can struggle to tell a rainforest from a plantation.

A view from the SPOT 6 satellite of an oil palm plantation in North Sumatra, Indonesia.
A view from the SPOT 6 satellite of an oil palm plantation in North Sumatra, Indonesia. ©AIRBUS DS 2013, 2014
A closeup of the oil palm trees, seen in 1.5-meter resolution. ©AIRBUS DS 2013, 2014
A closeup of the oil palm trees, seen in 1.5-meter resolution. ©AIRBUS DS 2013, 2014
Evidence of fire. ©AIRBUS DS 2013, 2014
Evidence of fire. ©AIRBUS DS 2013, 2014

The other difference is philosophical. While anyone with a laptop can log onto GFW — the platform is meant for journalists, conservationists and law enforcers as well as corporate officials — Starling is a business, available to companies that choose to pay for it. If an NGO like Greenpeace wants to investigate whether a grower is, say, demolishing rainforest outside of its concession, it must rely on lower-grade monitoring tools such as GFW or Google Earth.

“We would encourage all actors to work toward making the information public,” RAN agribusiness campaigner Gemma Tillack said in regard to Starling.

While the implementation of corporate zero-deforestation pledges, she told Mongabay, had so far been “disappointing,” with the destruction of forests and peatlands and the trampling of indigenous rights still routine, Starling could be “a very useful tool for supply-chain actors looking to implement their policies.”

“We’re calling on the [big refiners] as well as TFT to commit to radical transparency, which they talk about, and I think the availability of real-time data could be a valuable contribution,” Tillack said.

Deforestation for oil palm in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Deforestation for oil palm in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

As TFT’s Sachet describes it, Starling is neither public nor transparent — at least not inherently. It will be up to the participating companies to decide whether to share their satellite reports. But Sachet believes suppliers will be “strongly incentivized” to do so. “‘Maybe I can get more market share, maybe I can be preferred by Wilmar as a grower’,” he ventured on behalf of potential Starling subscribers.

As Sachet suggests, a big refiner like Wilmar could theoretically insist that a supplier use the service to prove its operations are deforestation-free, or at least that it is moving in the right direction. But what action the Wilmars of the world would take against firms that refuse to do so is an open question. Civil society groups have often assailed downstream giants like Wilmar for failing to act against suppliers shown to be in breach of their policies.

The corporate counterargument generally goes that cutting ties with an errant company is the easy way out — better to work with the supplier to help it change for the better, or the deforestation will simply continue. Detractors of that view point to the huge market share of the top five or six refiners — as much as 80 percent, by some counts — all of which have committed to zero-deforestation, and which could theoretically act in tandem to enforce their policies with little fear of sending a supplier into a rival’s arms.

The refiners dispute that logic, pointing out that the governments of top palm oil producers Indonesia and Malaysia (or, certain influential officials within those governments) have worked to undermine their zero-deforestation goals, such as when the Indonesian anti-monopoly agency, egged on by the agriculture ministry, threatened to prosecute Wilmar and its competitors as a cartel.

Starling “doesn’t mean you can verify the whole supply chain tomorrow,” said Sachet. But “we believe it will prompt more visibility in the supply chain. It will prompt more dialogue.”

An image of Sabah, Malaysia, demonstrates Starling's radar capability. The left side shows untreated radar images, the right side the land-cover classification extracted from radar. ©SarVision 2016
An image of Sabah, Malaysia, demonstrates Starling’s radar capability. The left side shows untreated radar images, the right side the land-cover classification extracted from radar. ©SarVision 2016

*A previous version of this article described nonprofit The Forest Trust as an environmental consultantcy.

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