How Brazil And Indonesia Can Meet The Climate Challenge

Steve Zwick

Tropical deforestation accelerates climate change, and 40 percent of it happens in two countries: Brazil and Indonesia. Governments, NGOs, and businesses, meanwhile, have launched dozens of efforts to correct this – but those efforts will only succeed if they work together. Here’s how to make that happen.

11 July 2017 | Have you ever heard of a company called Marfrig Global Foods?

How about JBS?

Here’s a hint: one of them is named after man named Jose Batista Sobrinho.

Another hint: Sobrinho was a prosperous Brazilian cattleman.

If you guessed the companies have something to do with beef, congratulations.

In fact, they’re two of the world’s largest meatpackers, and ithey supply everyone from Walmart and McDonald’s in the United States to Marks & Spencer in the United Kingdom, and thousands of companies in between.

Both, however, grew at the expense of the Amazon forest, which farmers have been chopping for a century to feed our ravenous appetites for soy and beef. Then, a decade ago, Brazil’s major meatpackers signed the “Cattle Agreements”, which are two voluntary commitments to stop buying from any ranches that chop forest, use slave labor, or graze on indigenous territories or protected lands.

The Cattle Agreements came three years after grain companies like Cargill and Louis Dreyfus agreed to a similar moratorium on soy products from the Amazon, and something similar is happening in Indonesia as well. There, perpetual environmental bad boys like Wilmar and Asia Pulp & Paper have started changing the way they buy their pulp, paper, and palm – often by joining multilateral trade organizations that promote sustainable land-use.

These are just a handful of the roughly 500 companies that have pledged to reduce their impact on forests, according to the Forest Trends Supply Change initiative. All of these pledges and programs have two things in common: first, they involve the big four commodities that drive most of the world’s deforestation – namely, cattle and soy in Brazil and palm and pulp & paper in Indonesia – and second, they’re largely led by the private sector, usually in response to NGO pressure.

But what about governments? After all, these two countries account for about 40 percent of the world’s tropical deforestation, and we can’t expect the companies that created the mess to fix it on their own.

Both governments, it turns out, have created national climate action plans – technically called “NDCs”, for “Nationally-Determined Contributions” – and both of those plans involve saving forests, which is critical because deforestation generates between 15 and 20 percent of the greenhouse gases that man is responsible for emitting.

Unfortunately, the private and public initiatives mostly work parallel to each other rather than togethber, according to a new report called “Collaboration Toward Zero Deforestation: Aligning Corporate and National Commitments in Brazil and Indonesia”, which looks at the ways government and the private sector are – and are not – cooperating to reduce greenhouse gasses created by the way these two countries manage their forests, farms, and fields.

Published jointly by Forest Trends and the Environmental Defense Fund, the report identifies more than a dozen initiatives – some led by NGOs, some led by green-minded companies, and others led by governmental agencies – and it suggests ways of linking them to turbocharge their results.

More on the Podcast

For a deep dive into the report findings, you can access it directly here, or listen to Episode 20 of the Bionic Planet Podcast, which features an in-depth interview with authors Brian Schaap of Forest Trends and Breanna Lujan of the Environmental Defense Fund. Bionic Planet is available at, as well as on iTunesTuneInStitcher, and wherever you access podcasts. You can also listen here:

Why Indonesia and Brazil?

You’ll never confuse Brazil and Indonesia on a map: one is a solid landmass covering half a continent, while the other is a “Land of a Thousand Islands” (or, technically, about 15 thousand islands) – scattered across the sea. Brazil has four times more land than Indonesia does, but each country spreads out over about 3 million square miles of territory, and Indonesia’s peat soils emit both methane and carbon when poorly managed. That means they’re both massive emitters of greenhouse gases from deforestation.

They also face surprisingly similar challenges: both have poorly-demarcated land ownership, which makes environmental laws difficult to enforce, and both have powerful and often corrupt agriculture sectors, which have tended to oppose liberal land reforms.

Similar solutions have also emerged in both countries, and that’s where the report focuses.

“We don’t want to sugarcoat anything, but by nature we did want to look at what’s working rather than at the bad stuff, which is already widely-reported,” said Brian Schaap of Forest Trends in a recent episode of the Bionic Planet podcast.

Schaap wrote the section focused on Indonesia, while Breanna Lujan and Dana Miller of Environmental Defense Fund wrote the section focused on Brazil.

Breaking it Down

The authors break each country’s NDC into individual objectives, then they explore the ways existing initiatives either do or don’t help to achieve that objective, and finally they offer suggestions for scaling up what works.

Brazil’s NDC, for example, has five components relevant to land use, and one of them is “sustainable agricultural development”. Lujan and Miller explore several initiatives that support this objective, beginning with the state of Mato Grosso’s existing efforts to restore degraded pasture. They then show how this dovetails with the Cattle Agreements, which have prompted farmers to adopt more efficient grazing strategies. Then they drill deeper into two specific programs – namely, the Novo Campo Program, which the Instituto Centro de Vida launched together with JBS and several rural unions, research organizations, and NGOs; and the São Félix do Xingu project in the state of Pará, which The Nature Conservancy launched together with regional authorities, Brazilian NGOs, and Marfrig, Walmart, and Cargill.

The Novo Campo Program has spread to 40 ranches across the state of Mato Grosso, while the São Félix do Xingu project has dramatically slashed deforestation in Pará – thanks, it must be said, in part to federal incentives developed under the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Both programs, Lujan and Miller conclude, can be replicated “to help companies to go beyond the Cattle Agreements to achieve deforestation across their supply chains while increasing agricultural production.”

Schaap does something similar with Indonesia: breaking the country’s NDC into five components, and then exploring their interrelationship with eight initiatives – three governmental, three corporate, and three conducted across jurisdictions involving multiple stakeholders.

The Power of Cooperation

The authors identified several multilateral stakeholder groups, such as the Brazilian Coalition on Climate, Forests, and Agriculture, that can serve as conduits between government, the private sector, and NGOs.

“The Coalition is the epitome of a multi-stakeholder platform,” said Lujan. “It has 131 members, including NGOs and companies such as Cargill and Carrefour, and it was initially created to provide a platform for these bodies to come together and talk about their expectations for the NDC, but it became a really great space for members to come together and exchange ideas.”

Schaap agrees, and identifies the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil as a group that has helped forge cooperation across Indonesia, echoing findings from the Forest Trends Supply Change initiative, which which actively tracks progress on pledges made by roughly 500 companies. Earlier this year, Supply Change found that join such groups are not only more likely to make commitments, but they’re also more likely to disclose progress towards achieving them – even if that progress is disappointing.

The findings, obviously, don’t end there. After all, this is a 45-page report that draws on more than 100 sources and examines more than a dozen programs in detail. It provides as solid a snapshot of current initiatives, and Schaap says it just scratches the surface

“Both realms of action – government action and corporate responsibility to reduce deforestation – are huge in their own right,” he says. “We’re beginning to explore those connections in two key countries, but there’s really a lot more work to be done on this topic, and I hope to see other organizations writing reports, and we hope to go deeper and continue asking these sorts of questions.”

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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