Conservation news

‘Deforestation-free’ isn’t working: It’s time to go forest positive (commentary)

Flowering rainforest tree in the Colombian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Flowering rainforest tree in the Colombian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

  • Charlotte Opal, the Executive Director of the Forest Conservation Fund, argues for “forest positive” supply chains where companies are not only buying from suppliers who aren’t deforesting, but are also actively protecting standing forest in those supply chains.
  • “Directly supporting forest conservation is a simple, cheap, and fast way for companies to get out in front of the problem and stop deforestation at the frontier, while in parallel they do the expensive, complex, and slower work of cleaning up their supply chains.”
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

2020 was supposed to be a big year for forests. Six years ago this month, world leaders gathered at the UN Climate Summit and endorsed the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF), which aimed to cut deforestation in half by 2020 and end deforestation entirely by 2030. Since then, over 200 governments, multi-national companies, indigenous peoples’ groups and non-governmental organizations have endorsed the NYDF, pledging to help eliminate deforestation — the source of up to 15% of our planet’s greenhouse gas emissions — and protect priceless wildlife habitat and ecosystem services in the bargain.

But last year, the good people measuring progress on the NYDF admitted that “achieving the 2020 NYDF targets is likely impossible”. Global deforestation rates have actually increased by 43% since 2014. As we watch fires rage in Brazil, Indonesia, Central America, and California, we have to admit that our current strategies for fighting deforestation are not working. In particular, the solutions for companies who want to offer deforestation-free products are not fit for purpose. They are too complex, too expensive, and too slow.

Fire in an area newly deforested registered by Deter (Real Time Deforestation Detection System), in Porto Velho, Rondônia state. Taken 16 Aug, 2020. CREDIT: © Christian Braga / Greenpeace

The main way that companies eliminate deforestation from their supply chains today is through certification. Certification means that a third-party auditor checks the way a product was grown and makes sure it meets certain standards, for instance that the producer was paid a fair price, that workers have good working conditions, or that certain pesticides weren’t used.

A few of the certification systems actually address recent deforestation: the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) standard and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)’s newly-improved standard both basically guarantee that forests were not destroyed in the recent past to plant crops they certify – 2016 in the case of RTRS, and 2018 in the case of RSPO. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC, which certifies timber and wood-based products like paper) goes all the way back to 1994 – it won’t certify tree plantations that replaced natural forest after that date.

This all sounds easy – as a buyer, I can get a ‘deforestation-free’ product today just by buying certified product from a farm that was deforested long ago. The problem is that this doesn’t actually stop deforestation.

Palm oil plantation abutting natural forest. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The biggest problem with pursuing certification as proof of ‘deforestation-free’ is that farms are certified once they are farms. They only rarely have significant areas of natural forest inside them. And it definitely doesn’t protect forest outside of farms. If I have forest that I want to clear and plant with a cash crop, maybe I can’t sell to rich country markets who are asking for certified products, but there is always another market. Even after decades of implementation, the mainstream certification systems have only been able to certify about 20% of the market. Maybe they can get to 100% certification, but how long will it take? Our forests are disappearing right now – we lost nearly 12 million hectares just last year.

By focusing efforts and budgets on certification, most companies who are trying to implement deforestation-free supply chains are pursuing not a deforestation-free strategy, but a risk-free strategy: I’ll buy from certified farms and leave the problems for others to sort out. While this makes us feel good because we’ve managed not to buy from the worst actors, it doesn’t actually change anything. Deforestation for soy, for cattle, for palm oil all continues apace, tarnishing these industries to the point where the millions of dollars spent on these risk-free strategies doesn’t even help the company’s sustainability message: despite real efforts to clean up supply chains and buy from suppliers who aren’t deforesting, there are still powerful campaigns to boycott certain ingredients.

What we need to do is become forest positive. In a forest positive supply chain, buyers are not only buying from suppliers who aren’t deforesting, but are actively protecting standing forest in those supply chains. There are millions of hectares of forest sitting outside of protected areas, vulnerable to conversion to agriculture – six million hectares in Indonesia alone. What would it take to move that forest into protection? How much does it cost to fund land tenure for local forest communities, wardens to protect forests from poachers and loggers, and support forest-friendly development options?

The Amazon rainforest sequesters vast amounts of carbon. Its destruction could destabilize the regional and global climate. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

The answer is less than $40 per hectare per year, which is next to nothing when compared to both the amount of money companies spend on these commodities and on their sustainability programs. For less than 2% of the cost of goods of palm oil, cocoa, paper, and other commodities driving deforestation, companies could protect forests equivalent to the area they need to plant these products. A hectare of plantation footprint, complimented by a hectare of forest conservation footprint. It’s even a neat answer to the global goal to protect the half of our planet that’s still basically wild.

Becoming forest positive also allows companies to escape from the endless negative messages about burning landscapes and ecosystem collapse. In Indonesia, brands are funding communities near palm oil plantations to protect thousands of hectares of forest, home to endangered gibbons, hornbills, and that proboscis monkey, with the face only its mother can love. Forest communities in Papua New Guinea have created their own Wildlife Management Areas to protect the forest homes of tree kangaroos, birds of paradise, and the world’s largest butterfly, and are using conservation funding to invest in income-generation activities for community members, to reduce the pressure on clearing forests for new farms.

Directly supporting forest conservation is a simple, cheap, and fast way for companies to get out in front of the problem and stop deforestation at the frontier, while in parallel they do the expensive, complex, and slower work of cleaning up their supply chains. By linking up with local communities and suppliers protecting forests near the farms growing their products, companies can have a direct, measurable impact on keeping forests standing – that is “forest positive”.

Charlotte Opal is the Executive Director of the Forest Conservation Fund, www.fundforests.org.

Banner image caption: Flowering rainforest tree in the Colombian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.