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A most unlikely hope: How the companies that destroyed the world’s forests can save them (commentary)

An oil palm plantation. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

  • In the age of Trump, lamenting the lassitude of governments may be satisfying, but it does little to solve our planet’s foremost existential crisis. It is for this reason that the hopes of billions of people now depend on the very companies most responsible for environmental destruction.
  • We’ve come to a pretty sorry pass if we’re depending in significant measure on these corporations to get us out of this mess. But it’s the pass we’re at, and there’s actually reason to hope that the same companies that got us into this mess can get us out.
  • In this commentary, Mighty Earth CEO Glenn Hurowitz writes that he feels confident these companies can make a difference because they’ve done it before.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Deep in the forest of the Bolivian Amazon, fire burns through thousands of acres of ancient Amazon rainforest. It’s a crude way to destroy an ecosystem. The scene offers no hint of all the technology that’s supposed to be transforming our world according to our Twitter feeds and thought leaders on Wall Street and Silicon Valley. But make no mistake: this simple act of destruction, prehistoric in its origins though modern in its scale, is shaping our world as much or more than every iPhone, missile, or the Internet of Things.

This is the frontier where ‘modern’ agriculture meets nature, and it’s not a pretty sight. This is where millions of years of accumulated carbon get turned into the poison that is making our atmosphere hot, and where sloths and jaguars are pushed into ever-smaller corners of the once vast rainforest.

Of course, once the forest is cleared and the indigenous people pushed off, the modernity of this scene becomes more apparent. Commercial farming companies financed by huge global agricultural behemoths like the American soy traders Cargill and Bunge plant the land with high-tech soy once it’s cleared; in many cases, they use tractors loaded with hundreds of thousands of dollars of computing equipment to monitor every square meter of soy fields that can be 100 km2 in extent. The commercial farmers are proud of their technology, and this part of the process of growing soy makes them feel like they’re on the cutting edge of society. Cargill, Bunge, and their ilk boast about efficiency — but all ignore the barbarity at the root of the entire process.

The deforestation that paved the way for these vast soy operations is pure barbarity. Even on its own terms — Cargill claims the purpose of their operations is to ‘nourish a growing planet’ — it’s unnecessary. There are 1.25 million km2 of previously deforested and degraded lands across the tropics where agriculture can be expanded without sacrificing forests.

Nonetheless, Cargill, Bunge, and other unscrupulous companies have continued to purchase soy and other commodities that have their origins in vast fires like those in Bolivia, which are common in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay — as well as in Southeast Asia’s Paradise Forests, which are being cleared for palm oil.

Government: Responsible But Absent

Why is this deforestation still happening when agriculture can be expanded without the horrible effects? Part of the blame lies with governments. Too many rainforest nation governments — and the societies they represent — continue to tolerate corruption, and let big companies like Cargill expropriate their natural resources for the benefit of their foreign owners. In Ivory Coast, for example, Mighty Earth has recently conducted an investigation that showed how the country let cocoa farmers who supply cocoa to big chocolate companies like Cadbury, Nestle, and Mars destroy national parks and protected forest areas.

Palm fruit in an oil palm plantation. Photo by Rhett Butler.

It’s not like developed countries are immune. Both Europe and the United States have extremely unwise biofuel mandates propping up segments of their domestic agribusiness industry that require a certain percentage of the gasoline burned in automobile fuel tanks to come from biofuels — palm oil, soy biodiesel, and corn ethanol. Forests were already being hammered just by ordinary market demand for cattle and soy; these kinds of mandates are making them worse — which is part of the reason why viable efforts are underway on both continents to end the obscene practice of burning food in fuel tanks.

In the age of Trump, lamenting the lassitude of governments may be satisfying, but it does little to solve our planet’s foremost existential crisis. It is for this reason that the hopes of billions of people now depend on the very companies most responsible for environmental destruction. I suppose we’ve come to a pretty sorry pass if we’re depending in significant measure on these corporations to get us out of this mess. But it’s the pass we’re at, and there’s actually reason to hope that the same companies that got us into this mess can get us out.

The Proven Potential of the Private Sector

I feel this confidence because they’ve done it before. The Brazilian Amazon used to be one of the big new frontiers for soy plantations after scientists developed new varieties that could for the first time be grown in the tropics. By 2004, Brazil was clearing almost 30,000 km2 of forest every year — equivalent to wiping a pristine forest the size of Belgium of all its native vegetation. In response, environmental campaigns around the world demanded that companies like McDonald’s and Tesco stop sourcing beef and other meat raised on soy from the Amazon. These brands turned to their soy suppliers, Cargill, Bunge, ADM, and Louis Dreyfus, and told them they couldn’t sell their deforestation-based soy anymore.

Although those companies had long made excuses for environmental problems, once they faced real market pressure, they acted quickly, and announced a strict moratorium on deforestation for soy. Within three years, deforestation for soy in the Brazilian Amazon had plummeted to zero. A few years later, major leather and beef customers in Brazil and around the world put similar pressure on the cattle industry, and won. Deforestation to make room for cattle ranches also rapidly declined, but wasn’t eliminated. To be sure, government measures like the creation of new national parks and indigenous reserves helped, but the majority of progress seems to have been delivered by the private sector. A 2015 study in the journal Science found that compliance with the voluntary private sector soy moratorium was five times greater than with the Brazilian Forest Code.

Remarkably, despite the plunge in deforestation, Brazilian agriculture didn’t stop growing: soy and cattle production have doubled since the soy moratorium went into force. Brazilian soy farmers have been able to expand their planted area in the Amazon by 25,000 km2 — without deforestation.

Spreading Success

This is the success we must emulate, but too many of the very companies that participated in that success have resisted its duplication. Just over the border from Cargill and Bunge’s great success in the Brazilian Amazon, forests continue to burn in the Bolivian Amazon – an ecosystem no different from the one they’re protecting in Brazil. Why the Brazilian Amazon is worthy of protection when the Bolivian Amazon is not is an indictment of the morality and energy of the corporations causing this deforestation. In Brazil’s vast biodiverse forest savannah, it’s the same story: Cargill and Bunge are directly financing and buying soy from farms that are bulldozing and burning this unique place that provides habitat for Giant Anteater, the endangered Maned Wolf, and the huge hyacinth macaw. Indeed, Rainforest Foundation Norway and Mighty Earth conducted an investigation into deforestation in these two ecosystems that was covered in major media around the globe; a few months later, we again investigated the same locations we had gone to the first time, and found that farms linked to Cargill and Bunge had cleared an area the size of 10,000 football fields just since our first investigation!

Of course, Cargill and Bunge bear direct responsibility for the actions of those who they finance and from whom they purchase soy and other commodities. The egregiousness of their actions is especially stark when one considers that their competitors ADM and Louis Dreyfus have expressed very strong support for duplicating the success.

Cargill and Bunge are getting away with their continued deforestation because their customers are still willing to use their soy as the raw material that feeds the chicken, pork, and beef they serve, even though they know it has involved deforestation.

McDonald’s, Burger King, the supermarket giants Ahold Delhaize, Tesco and Marks & Spencer, and many others have all said they support an extension of the success of the Brazilian soy moratorium to other ecosystems, but their stated support hasn’t translated into action. More than a year ago, these companies saw videos, photos, and satellite evidence showing that Cargill and Bunge have for years been driving deforestation in South America for soy at a mass level. Ten years ago, presented with similar evidence, these companies forced Cargill and Bunge and other soy companies to act and create the enormous success of the Brazilian Soy Moratorium.

But the leadership of companies like McDonald’s, Marks & Spencer, and Ahold Delhaize is not what it once was. Marks & Spencer and Ahold Delhaize have even had the gall to say that while they support an extension of the Brazilian Soy Moratorium ‘in principle,’ they are unwilling to actually do anything about it until the traders and soy growers — in other words, the deforesters themselves — call for it themselves. In other words, they won’t ask deforesters to stop deforestation unless the deforesters want to do it themselves. And McDonald’s, Cargill’s largest customer, has continued to purchase Chicken McNuggets and other products from Cargill despite the company’s refusal to meaningfully address its enormous contribution to deforestation. That gives the lie to McDonald’s and other companies’ stated commitments.

Oil palm estate and rainforest in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by Rhett Butler.

In particular, Cargill, McDonald’s, and dozens of the world’s other leading food and agriculture companies all committed several years ago to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains by 2020. Unfortunately, these companies aren’t taking the deadline seriously. If they were, they wouldn’t be continuing to buy raw materials from companies like Cargill and Bunge that have continued to finance deforestation on a vast scale. Because in order to hit that deadline, companies will need to set up mechanisms like the expansion of the Soy Moratorium in Latin America, and press their palm-oil, paper, and beef suppliers to take action in other areas. Unless they do, 2020 will come and go with massive private sector-driven deforestation still underway. Pressing companies to meet the 2020 deadline is one of the most powerful levers that consumers, investors, governments and activists must persuade companies to act with urgency.

Industry-Wide Change

The problems of insufficient commitment are not crop-specific. All come back to the same companies that buy palm oil, soy, beef, paper, cocoa, and rubber — the top commodities driving deforestation.

The palm-oil industry has in many ways made extraordinary progress; the largest traders have all adopted strict forest and human rights policies, and have agreed to support conservation of all high carbon stock landscapes according to the same criteria (even Cargill has supported this action). But there are limits to what companies can do individually through corporate sustainability policies. Suppliers to the leaders of the palm-oil industry — and through them, the world’s biggest consumer companies — have continued with deforestation. In Papua, Indonesia’s largest intact rainforest frontier and home to extraordinary wildlife like tree kangaroos and birds of paradise, Korean conglomerates like Korindo and Posco Daewoo have destroyed 500 km2 of rainforest. When presented with the evidence, all the big palm-oil companies announced almost immediately that they wouldn’t buy from these rogue actors. But it shouldn’t have required activist NGOs like ours to come along and tell these giant companies about obvious deforestation within their own supply chains. With their $50 billion in annual revenues, the leaders of the palm-oil industry should have the collective wherewithal to monitor deforestation across Southeast Asia and automatically cut off ties with any company that fails to comply with their own policies immediately — before deforestation gets to even 1 km2, let alone 500 km2.

It’s essentially the same story in the other industries driving deforestation. The opportunity to eliminate deforestation rapidly exists, but too many companies have failed to treat the issue with the urgency required. In the rubber industry, only Michelin has adopted a strict forest conservation and human rights policy. Bridgestone, Continental, and Goodyear have continued to deal with deforestation by covering their eyes and failing to ask questions. Indeed, the rubber industry association charged with dealing with sustainability requires its suppliers only to comply with the laws in the countries in which they operate, which in many cases means no sustainability criteria whatsoever.

However, there are some positive examples. After decades of mass-scale deforestation, the Southeast Asian paper giants Asia Pulp and Paper and APRIL have adopted forest conservation policies which they seem to be implementing rigorously. They have even gone one step further, by committing to the restoration of previously destroyed forests and carbon-rich peatlands.

One example of hope for rapid progress is the chocolate industry. In some ways, the big chocolate players have acted even worse than those in other industries. These companies have been knowingly sourcing cocoa from within national parks and other protected areas in Ivory Coast and Ghana’s once-lush rainforest for decades. In Ivory Coast, the country is now only 4 percent densely forested, and cocoa has almost entirely taken over several of the country’s protected areas. In Ghana, the situation is not much better.

But in response to a call from rainforest champion Prince Charles and the Dutch sustainability organization IDH, the chocolate industry is participating in a process to identify collective actions they can take to end deforestation and human rights abuse once and for all. They seem not to be fiddling around with the illusory notion that individual companies can change much on their own, or that they can just slough off their obligations to ensure a sustainable future for the countries in which they operate on governments. The proof will be in the (chocolate) pudding – but the process as it currently stands is a model for how industries should address urgent forest issues.

An Honest and Liberating Approach

At the end of the day, even the worst deforesters can be persuaded to stop and act effectively — if they hear enough from their customers and investors. These companies know that it’s kind of hard to enjoy a Big Mac if you’re worrying that McDonald’s beef was raised through the destruction of an ancient forest; or to luxuriate under a hot shower if you’re worried that your soap was made with palm oil produced by driving orangutans to the brink of extinction.

That’s why increasing activism is the single most important thing needed. That means speaking up with the companies from which you buy your products, it means protesting outside supermarkets, and it means posting messages in a targeted way on social media. Investors have an at least equal opportunity to drive change. The Norwegian Government Pension Fund’s divestment from 23 palm oil companies in 2013 told the entire palm-oil industry that investors were no longer going to ask them politely to stop destroying the rainforest: there would be consequences if they didn’t heed the calls for action. As a result, palm-oil companies started taking the urgings of other institutional investors far more seriously. Investors, just like consumers, need to use their clout to aggressively and clearly call for specific change, through engagement and shareholder resolutions. But they must be willing to go farther. The reality is that many irresponsible companies engaged in deforestation don’t actually think investors will pull their money out because of sustainability concerns. When companies fail to respond, divestment can be the only option: it can make companies realize that these concerns have an immediate financial impact.

These are simple tactics, but they work. Unfortunately, there has been too little of this. In Latin America, the Rainforest Foundation Norway and the Norwegian government are the only major funders who have been willing to support the kind of hard-hitting activism that the private sector responds to. More is needed.

The world is in a race against time — and our governments are either not acting, or are moving in the wrong direction. Paradoxically, due to political factors, even in nominally democratic societies, decent citizens have more opportunities to have their voices heard through the companies from which they purchase goods than from the governments they have elected to act in their interest — an upside-down world, but it’s the world we live in. That knowledge, while upsetting, can also prove liberating — and it could pave the way for agriculture to expand, without sacrificing the rainforests our planet needs to survive.

Canopy of an oil palm plantation in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Glenn Hurowitz is CEO of Mighty Earth.

This article originally appeared in a report released today by the Rainforest Foundation Norway, “Saving Rainforests 2.0: Next steps and better solutions for
efforts to protect the rainforest

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