- 2020 was to be the year when the bold commitment made by hundreds of companies to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains was met. Instead, the failure to achieve this goal can be measured by the sharp rise in deforestation since 2014.
- Yet despite this bleak picture – and the need to act being more urgent than ever – there’s another story to tell about the last decade.
- It’s the story of how the pledge to eliminate deforestation from supply chains by 2020 was doomed to fail. It’s also – perhaps surprisingly – about the immense journey some companies, NGOs, and institutions have made in that time and how the path to remove the stain of deforestation from the products we consume is now clearer than ever.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
This was meant to be a moment of triumph in the long battle to save the world’s forests. The year when the bold commitment hundreds of companies made to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains by 2020 was met, when the relentless destruction of forests for agricultural commodities, such as palm oil, cocoa, soy and beef, was reversed.
Instead, the failure to achieve this goal can be measured by the sharp rise in deforestation since 2014, the year the New York Declaration of Forests was signed by governments, corporations, and non-governmental organizations. Since then, the area of forest destroyed each year globally has increased by more than 40%.
Yet despite this bleak picture — and the need to act being more urgent than ever — there’s another story to tell about the last decade.
It’s the story of how the pledge to eliminate deforestation from supply chains by 2020 was doomed to fail. It’s also — perhaps surprisingly — about the immense journey some companies, NGOs, and institutions have made in that time and how the path to remove the stain of deforestation from the products we consume is now clearer than ever.
2020: an arbitrary date?
Among the reasons that the 2020 goal was bound to fail is the randomness of the date: How do you commit to something without any indication of how long it will take, and without a roadmap to get there? For many companies, pledging to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains was like trying to hack their way through a jungle with a machete.
Consequently, only a few of the companies who made No Deforestation commitments took concrete steps to implement them — or at least, outlined strong action plans to do so.
In 2010, just after Nestlé became the first food company to commit itself to having No Deforestation in the raw materials in its food, drinks, and packaging, I sat down with their lead palm buyer to explore the idea of asking for 100% traceability of the palm oil they use in their products.
After the meeting, the Nestlé supplier said: “What you ask is a nightmare. Palm oil can’t be traced because it goes from everywhere to everywhere. But if we have to, we’ll try.” According to some evidence, just 2% of palm oil companies were able to trace their products back to where it was grown.
Another fundamental issue that was yet to be resolved between companies and NGOs was settling on a precise definition of “deforestation.” All this meant that the path to No Deforestation by 2020 still had to be created.
We can only change what we can see
Some committed players, however, started to work hard, including buyers, NGOs, and scientists. Companies started to ask their suppliers questions about the provenance of the raw materials and their suppliers in turn committed to No Deforestation.
Data started to flow, to the extent that now the estimated 3,000 mills around the world where palm oil is processed can all be precisely located.
Meanwhile satellite systems such as Starling (a collaboration between Earthworm and Airbus), as well as other services, began monitoring in near-real-time what was happening around those mills, and are now able to supply precise data on whether deforestation is afflicting a particular supply chain.
An agreement around what forests to protect (High Carbon Stock Forests) was found and a methodology set up to do so in practice, which led to hundreds of thousands of forests being conserved.
But despite those efforts, deforestation continues to increase.
To tackle this, the lessons from the last decade are clear.
First, not enough companies came on board to drive change (or did so robustly enough, in many cases).
Second, while deforestation is still being driven by clearances for industrial expansion, we know from Starling’s satellite monitoring of palm oil producing regions that there’s a significant trend towards smallholders clearing between one to five hectares of land and eroding the integrity of critical forest areas. They do this, quite simply, because they need to eat. Or, as the leader of one of Asia’s pulp and paper industry giants succinctly put it to me: “Deforestation is a poverty issue.”
The way to address this — and the poverty which underlies it — is by not relying exclusively on the prescriptive ‘No Deforestation’ approach that’s largely prevailed until now. Nor is it by sourcing from low-risk regions, as that won’t drive the necessary change. Rather, these strategies need to be complemented by working closely with the communities, smallholders, and governments in producer countries.
Practically, that means companies engaging with smallholders and supporting them to regenerate their oil palm plantations: increasing smallholders’ yields to meet palm oil demand, which reduces their need to expand their plantations into forests. This is already happening in Indonesia, where satellite technology is helping with land planning and the government has begun to play a supportive role. It’s unquestionably true that smallholders are keen to protect forests so long as they can make a decent living.
Regeneration is the meeting point
More broadly, to end the deforestation and human rights violations, including child labor, that’s disfigured our supply chains for so long, we must move from an extractive mentality to a regenerative one.
Instead of pushing the social and environmental problems on to the most vulnerable people and places on the planet and then blaming them for not solving them, it’s time to find common ground.
There is now a greater realization than ever among the general population that our planet is changing — forests are burning, corals are dying, species are disappearing — and so we need to do things differently.
Consumers are challenging brands. Investors and pension funds are challenging companies. Children are challenging their parents. Citizens are challenging their governments. They are saying that the story of the next decade must be different to the last.
Bastien Sachet is the CEO of the Earthworm Foundation, a non-profit organization which works with partners from farms to boardrooms to build value chains that work for people and nature.