10 Keys To Slashing Deforestation

Steve Zwick

In the last few years, tropical forests have shifted from being our greatest carbon sinks to being a net source of greenhouse gas emissions. The news comes as 250 organizations – ranging from environmental NGOs to governments and major corporations – have identified 10 time-tested activities that can be scaled up to purge deforestation from four key supply chains.

17 October 2017 | Donuts, deodorant, buns and burgers. They’re killing us – and not just because of what they do to our bodies. No, the real problem is what the beefsoy, and palm oil that they’re made of – as well as the pulp & paper they’re packaged in – do to our forests and, by extension, our climate.

Specifically, these are the big four commodities responsible for most of the world’s deforestation, and the Union of Concerned Scientists points out that four Latin American countries alone destroy at least 2.71 million hectares of forest each year just to make way for cattle. That’s more than 10,000 square miles of forest, which is almost 10-times the devastation wrought by this year’s California wildfires.

It hurts us all, because as forests die, they release massive amounts of methane and carbon dioxide, accelerating climate change.

The good news is that we can purge deforestation from these four supply chains by 2020 – or just over two years from now – by simply scaling up ten time-tested activities that producers, NGOs, and governments are already practicing around the world.

That’s the consensus of more than 250 economists, ecologists, and agronomists, distilled into a very readable document called “Commodities and Forests Agenda 2020: Ten priorities to remove tropical deforestation from commodity supply chains”.

The 30-page report (plus 14-page index) was published at New York Climate Week in September by Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 (TFA 2020), which represents more than 100 entities – from environmental NGOs and governments to multinational corporations and indigenous organizations.

The report is also the focus of episodes 22 and 23 of the Bionic Planet podcast, which offers a brief history of TFA 2020 and provides examples of some activities in action.

You can subscribe to Bionic Planet on iTunesTuneInStitcher, or wherever you access podcasts, or you can listen to the most recent episode here:

A Brief History of Corporate Commitments

TFA 2020 Director Marco Albani traces the genesis of the ten “priority areas” back to 2010, when the 400 companies comprising the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF) passed a resolution to purge deforestation from the supply chains of cattlesoy,  oil palm and pulp & paper by 2020.

CGF has roots in the aftermath of World War I, but it coalesced in its current form in 2009, when three consumer-oriented industry groups merged ahead of the Copenhagen climate talks. The 2010 resolution then launched an iterative sequence of commitments made, courses evaluated, and collaboration undertaken.

In 2012, for example, CGF and the US government launched TFA 2020 to expand beyond the private sector. TFA 2020 has since grown to over 100 partners, including governments from both exporting and importing companies, food packagers, and environmental NGOs, as well as indigenous and labor organizations.

In 2014, UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon launched the New York Declaration on Forests, which is a cluster of ten pledges to cut the global rate of deforestation in half by 2020, and to end deforestation by 2030 while restoring hundreds of millions of acres of degraded land. The pledge was endorsed by 56 governments: 36 national and 20 regional, as well as 15 indigenous organizations, 53 environmental NGOs, and 52 multinational corporations.

In 2015, the governments of the UK and Norway ramped up funding for TFA 2020, and the World Economic Forum gave it a place to live. That same year, Ecosystem Marketplace publisher Forest Trends launched the Supply Change initiative to track the progress that companies report on their commitments.

Identifying the Gaps

Also in 2015, TFA 2020 asked a dozen leading NGOs to assess progress towards achieving the ten goals of the New York Declaration on Forests, and they commissioned environmental advisory group Climate Focus to pull the findings together in a New York Declaration on Forests Progress Assessment.

Using Supply Change data on almost 700 companies, they found less than half of the companies that had made commitments were actually disclosing progress – although those that did report progress were usually on track to meet their goals. They also found huge variance from company to company – meaning some great success stories, but too much apathy and plenty of lessons-learned.

In November of 2016, at the Marrakesh Climate Talks, Climate Focus published two reports: one on overall progress towards the ten NYDF goals, and one focused only on Goal Number Two, which aims to eliminate deforestation from the big four commodities by 2020.

Filling the Gaps

Once they identified the gaps, TFA 2020 commissioned Climate Focus again – this time to identify the key activities needed to meet Goal Number Two. The advisory group conducted three rounds of interviews and peer review with more than 250 organizations before publishing the consensus last month, and Climate Focus Director Charlotte Streck stresses that that there is no priority among the priorities.

“We are not suggesting to do one and then the next one and then the next one,” she said at the launch event. “We have to do all of them, and we have to start now.”

Albani, speaking at the same event, added that even if we achieve the 2020 goal, deforestation will remain a threat for years to come.

“As long as you have forests, you have the possibility of deforestation,” he said. “So you have to create long-term equitable development opportunities that will remove the need for people to clear the forest.”

Those development activities are woven throughout the report, which you can easily read in less than an hour, and they at the Climate Week launch event, which I harvested for Episode 22 of Bionic Planet and for this summary. I’ll also be uploading the entire launch event for Episode 23 of Bionic Planet later today. For now, here is a quick summary of the ten priority areas, together with insights gleaned from the event.

Priority Area 1: Elimination of Illegality

It’s easy to pass laws, but it’s hard to enforce them, and most deforestation today comes from activities that are already against the law.

Forest Trends CEO Michael Jenkins pointed to research showing that most agriculture-related deforestation happens illegally.

“We did a report a couple of years ago that tried to document illegal conversion [of forests to farms or fields],” he said.  “A conservative estimate at the end of this report, when we look at it globally, was that 90% of the agricultural commodities coming out of the developing world into Europe and the modern marketplace is illegal.”

Streck pointed out that Brazil slashed deforestation 70 percent between 2004 and 2014, largely by enforcing existing laws. She added that companies have an obligation to support enforcement efforts, and Dewi Bramono, Asia Pulp and Paper’s (APP) Director of Sustainability and Stakeholder Engagement, pointed out that her company – once an environmental pariah – was now helping the Indonesian government develop a system for identifying illegally-harvested timber.

“Some of you may already know that in the last five years we’ve been working really hard to turn our story around – specifically about removing deforestation across our supply chain,” she said, hinting that the effort would pay off by keeping importers abroad happy – and providing hope that companies can, in fact, change.

Priority Area 2: Growing and Strengthening Palm Oil Certification

“Palm-oil is one of the main drivers of deforestation, in particular in Southeast Asia and West Africa,” said Streck.  “It is also one of the commodities where certification has gained traction.”

That echos Supply Change findings published in “Tracking Corporate Commitments to Deforestation-Free Supply Chains, 2017”, which shows corporate commitments are most advanced in palm oil and pulp & paper, largely because of certification programs dating back decades. The same report found advanced progress among companies that participate in multilateral sustainability organizations like TFA 2020.

Today, about 21 percent of palm oil is certified by the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO, but Streck pointed out that current demand for certified products lags production.

Priority Area 3: Scaling up Pilot Programs for Intensification of Cattle Grazing

“Beef is responsible for more deforestation than palm oil, soy, and pulp & paper combined,” said Streck, explaining that “intensification” basically means raising more cows on the same piece of land, so that you don’t have to keep chopping forests to graze them.

Priority Area 4: Sustainably Increasing Smallholder Yields in Palm Oil and Cocoa

Cocoa is not one of the big four, but it’s a huge contributor to deforestation, and it’s mostly produced by small farmers working in cooperatives. The report shows that small palm-oil producers can increase their productivity 85 percent without chopping more trees.

“These smallholders lack access to credit, they lack training, and often because of this they go on to mine soil and land to increase yields,” said Streck.  “This can be changed by systematically improving smallholder yields by providing technical assistance, timing and making available special of finance facilities.

Priority Area 5: Achieving Sustainable Soy Production

Up until 2006, farmers across the Brazilian Amazon were chopping forest like mad to grow soy, but then something changed: Companies like Cargill, responding to pressure from groups like Greenpeace, voluntarily stopped buying soy from Amazon farmers who chop trees to grow the stuff. The soy moratorium is just one example of a successful multilateral effort to fix the climate mess.

Priority Area 6: Accelerating the Implementation of Jurisdictional Programs

Certification programs are ridiculously expensive and notoriously difficult to manage. A company like McDonalds buys beef from slaughterhouses like Marfrig or JBS, and those slaughterhouses buy from thousands of small farmers. To really do this right, we have to move from certifying individual producers to certifying entire “jurisdictions”, means areas within the boundaries of specific states, counties, or even cities.

One TFA 2020-commissioned study identified  34 jurisdictional programs that cover 11% of the world’s beef production, 34% of the world’s palm oil production, and 41% of the soy production, and the state of Sabah, Malaysia, is one of them.

Cynthia Ong, who runs an NGO called Land, Empowerment, Animals, People (LEAP) also helps run the state’s jurisdictional program, called “Forever Sabah”.

“In 2016, we formed the jurisdictions certification steering committee which is equal parts government, civil society, and industry,” she explained.

Likewise, APP’s Bramono said that her company is supporting the creation of certified districts in the Indonesian states of South Sumatra and West Kalimantan.

“We work closely with the governors,” she said. “Their role is to help us identify other partners on the ground and also identify what kind of activities are being done in terms of conservation within those landscapes, so that we can coordinate our activities reduce overlap of actions.”

Priority Area 7: Addressing Land Conflicts, Tenure Security and Land Rights

Indigenous and traditional communities tend to have a strong connection to their land, and studies have shown they usually maintain their forest and want to keep it. The challenge is to make sure their legal standing encourages these activities.

“Uncertainty of land title and registration rolls back a lot of action and activity, so land registration efforts need to be accelerated,” said Streck. “Conflict resolution mechanisms need to be put in place, and the land needs to be assigned to indigenous peoples and rural communities where they have a claim.”

Priority Area 8: Mobilizing Demand for Deforestation-Free Commodities in Emerging Markets

Twenty-one percent of all palm oil is certified by the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), but most people still buy whatever is cheapest – and that’s even more so in developing countries.

“We might be at 21 percent, but the rest of it still goes into India and China and Malaysia,” said Kavita Prakash-Mani of WWF. “We’ve started doing looking at what we can do in the context of India and Malaysia to create the demand to bring on companies to make the business case [for adopting sustainable practices], which might not get certified palm oil, but might get into better standards.”

Priority Area 9: Redirecting Finance Towards Deforestation-Free Supply Chains

Investors are still backing the bad actors, and they’ll continue to do so until they realize that environmental bad actors are also financial bad risks – but they’ll only realize that if we all hold the bad actors accountable and support the good ones.

We’ve seen some progress on this front over the past year, with HSBC manning up to some investments that led to deforestation and pulling the plug, while countries like Norway are stepping up with finance for sustainable forest management.

Stina Reksten of Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative said that the country, together with the Global Environment Facility, Unilever, and the Dutch sustainable trade initiative IDH, is spearheading the creation of a $1.6 billion investment fund, of which $400 million will be public-sector backstopping, to promote sustainable investments. At the same time, Ecosystem Marketplace research identified $8 billion of impact investment flowing into projects designed to support forests, farms, and fields over the past ten years.

While impressive, Streck pointed out that’s just rounding error in the $55 trillion global economy.

Priority Area 10: Improving the Quality and Availability of Deforestation and Supply Chain Data

Supply chains are notoriously complex and opaque, which makes it difficult to make and monitor improvements. While efforts like Supply Change and TRASE, now make it easier to track progress on commitments or even to track specific commodities around the world, much needs to be done on this front.


Steve Zwick is a freelance writer and produces the Bionic Planet podcast. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Ecosystem Marketplace, and prior to that he covered European business for Time Magazine and Fortune Magazine and produced the award-winning program Money Talks on Deutsche Welle Radio in Bonn, Germany.

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