Conservation news

New initiative aims to jump-start stalled drive toward zero deforestation

Deforestation for soy production in the Bolivian Amazon and Chaco. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Deforestation for soy production in the Bolivian Amazon and Chaco. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

  • Over the past decade there has been a rise in corporate zero-deforestation commitments, but very few companies have shown progress in meeting their goals of reducing deforestation in their supply chains by 2020.
  • The Accountability Framework Initiative, launched by a group of 14 civil society organizations, is the latest tool to help companies make progress, and hold them accountable, on their zero-deforestation commitments.
  • The Accountability Framework Initiative is expected to be especially important for markets like Europe, where demand for crops like soy has been linked to rising deforestation in places like the Brazilian Cerrado.

In 2010, some 400 companies grouped under the Consumer Goods Forum agreed to the goal of achieving zero net deforestation by 2020 for the four commodities responsible for the majority of tropical deforestation: soy, palm oil, pulpwood and timber, and beef.

Nearly a decade later, though, even as more companies have made similar pledges, “the results are sobering,” says Daan Wensing, program director for global landscapes at IDH-The Sustainable Trade Initiative. An analysis conducted by Climate Focus for the Prince of Wales’ International Sustainability Unit in 2018 concluded that, “there is no evidence that the rapidly increasing private-sector commitments have led to tangible reductions in deforestation.”

Deforestation and conversion of native forestland from agricultural commodities is still on the rise, and as the self-imposed 2020 deadline draws nearer, the goal to reduce or even eliminate deforestation from supply chains will most certainly not be met.

“We have only a year and a half to go until [the end of] 2020,” Wensing told Mongabay in an interview. “There needs to be way more urgency about how we move forward if we want to make real progress beyond 2020.”

Illegal deforestation in the Awá Indigenous Reserve in Brazil’s Maranhâo state. Forests are illegally cleared by outsiders in preparation for cattle or crops. Image courtesy of Mário Vilela/FUNAI.

‘Accountability loop’

A recent report by Forest Trends found that of 865 companies identified as “the largest, most impactful, and/or most likely to have commitments,” fewer than 10 percent have actually committed to achieving zero deforestation for at least one commodity. Only one-third of those that have made such commitments have reported any progress.

A new initiative, launched on June 12 in Utrecht, the Netherlands, by a coalition of civil society partners, aims to close the “accountability loop” that they say has prevented more than 500 companies from achieving progress to remove deforestation from their supply chains.

“The Accountability Framework Initiative (AFI) is an attempt by the environmental community to provide a benchmark for the companies making these declarations of what a commitment ought to mean and how it can be implemented,” says David Cleary, director of global agriculture at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), one of the environmental NGOs that helped create the AFI. “Companies need these benchmarks to validate their commitments.”

The Accountability Framework sets “common norms and guidance for establishing, implementing, and demonstrating progress on ethical supply chain commitments in agriculture and forestry.”

Directed toward companies, it was developed to help make sure corporate commitments, activities, monitoring systems and reporting practices are in line with common and agreed-upon norms and best practices.

“I don’t think companies can ignore when you have some of the biggest environmental organizations and human rights organization around the same table coming to an agreement on standards,” says Vanessa Jiménez, senior attorney at the Forest People’s Programme (FPP), who helped lead the human rights segment of the initiative.

Munduruku children swimming in the Tapajós River in the heart of the Amazon. Protesters say that increasing development pressure by the bancada ruralista agribusiness lobby, which dominates Brazil’s congress and executive branch, has put the future of indigenous people across Brazil at risk. Image by Otávio Almeida/Greenpeace.

From promises to action

While traceability of commodities was initially seen as a barrier to implementing corporate zero-deforestation commitments, various platforms now exist for commodity producers, consumers, investors and other organizations to monitor deforestation from commodities. These include Trase, an online supply-chain tracking tool developed by the Stockholm Environment Institute and Global Canopy, as well as the Global Forest Watch Pro platform announced in June and already used by more than 80 commodity-producing companies and organizations to monitor and track their commitments.

Confusion over definitions and standards and a lack of accountability are widely seen as major reasons that zero-deforestation commitments have failed to deliver. One of the obstacles many companies encounter is finding a common definition of what a forest is, for example, and thus what constitutes deforestation. “Creating a common language, one that resonates better with companies, will make sustainability more accessible to businesses,” Wensing, whose organization was not involved in developing the AFI, says, adding, “I think the AFI will help in various ways.”

Beyond just providing environmental standards, the AFI also brings on board human rights organizations like the FPP to draw up a set of ethical guidelines that look beyond traditional certification systems that have focused largely just on forests and native vegetation.

“Zero-deforestation or no-conversion is … tremendously important, especially for climate change,” Jiménez says. “But that has to go together with respect for internationally recognized human rights. We know that some of the most vulnerable people [in these landscapes] are laborers and indigenous people.”

The inclusion of human rights in the AFI is especially important in places like Brazil, where the new government is actively trying to dismantle legal protections for indigenous peoples.

Industrial cultivation of soy on a Cerrado plantation. Image by Otto Ramos/Greenpeace.

Zero deforestation for European market

The AFI will also be key for Europe, where the debate around deforestation from agricultural commodities is heating up. Europe is an important market for forest-risk commodities such as soy and palm oil, making European demand one of the drivers of tropical deforestation.

A recent report by IDH took stock of European imports of major agricultural commodities linked to deforestation. It found that while three-quarters of palm oil imported into Europe for consumption was responsibly produced, less than one-quarter of soy was.

“Soy is an embedded product — you don’t see it,” Wensing says. “Consumers are hardly aware. The production of responsible soy far exceeds demand.”

A large percentage of the soybeans that Europe imports comes from the Amazon and Cerrado regions in Brazil, two of the most active frontiers for deforestation in the world. In 2015, six European countries — Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and the U.K. — signed up to the Amsterdam Declarations, pledging to ensure deforestation-free and sustainable agricultural commodities in their supply chains by 2020. But in 2017, 15 percent of the soy imports by these six countries came from the MATOPIBA region in the Brazilian Cerrado, which made up 82 percent of Europe’s deforestation risk, according to an analysis by Forest500.

Many of the companies active in the Brazilian Cerrado have committed to various zero-deforestation and environmental sustainability commitments,  but continue to be linked to deforestation.

“The focus is not on banging the drum and getting more companies to sign on [to zero-deforestation commitments],” says Cleary, “but rather get those companies to start implementing their policies.”

Banner image of deforestation for soy production in the Bolivian Amazon and Chaco, by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.