Walking the talk on zero deforestation

To make zero deforestation a reality in Southeast Asia, stronger government legislation and greater collaboration among industry stakeholders is key.

Many agribusinesses have in recent years pledged to stop clearing rainforests, while governments and environmental groups have introduced an array of tools and policies to tackle the deforestation that leads to the haze enveloping Southeast Asia every year. 

But to achieve results from these efforts, improvements need to be made in legislation, changing the behaviour of independent farmers and rural communities, and producing better data on forest land use. 

This was the consensus among palm oil and paper companies and environmental advocates at the Second Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources, a conference organised by think tank Singapore Institute of International Affairs on Wednesday.

Speaking to a crowd of about 350 guests at the Ritz-Carlton Millenia Hotel in Singapore, John Hartman, chief executive officer of food commodities company Cargill, said that “the need to grow food supply is necessary, but we must de-link agricultural development from deforestation”. 

Separately, the Indonesian government on Wednesday announced that it has extended an existing moratorium on the clearing of forest and peatland areas.

While this is a welcome move, other laws and policies in Indonesia also need to be improved, noted the panelists.

Jeremy Goon, chief sustainability officer of palm oil giant Wilmar International, said that it was “extremely challenging to successfully implement [a zero deforestation] policy with the current regulatory framework”. 

He cited a law which prevents companies from leaving land on their concessions untouched as a prime example. 

In September last year, the government amended its Plantation Act to stipulate that any land that was under a Right of Cultivation permit must be cleared and converted within six years of the permit being granted. If not, it would be reclaimed by the government and given to someone else who would develop the land. 

This is a “perverse” outcome of a company’s effort to protect ecologically valuable land by leaving it alone, said Goon.

The government also needs to address forest burning and social conflict by acting quickly on its One Map initiative, said the speakers.

This is an initiative by the government to develop a single, comprehensive map of land ownership in Indonesia, and is expected to provide clarity around the exact boundaries of land owned by companies, communities and the government.

Currently, multiple maps exist with overlapping boundaries. This makes it difficult to identify who is responsible for a forest fire, and also leads to disputes between companies and communities over land rights. 

Some environmental campaigners, at a later session on haze prevention, noted that communities sometimes raze pockets of disputed land as a way to “claim” ownership for themselves. 

Having one unified map would help resolve these issues significantly, they said. The initiative, first announced last year, will take a further two to three years to complete, added an Indonesian official at the event.

Transparency is half the battle won

Palm oil is a versatile crop which will be important in the future.  For us to remain relevant and competitive, things have to change.”

Jeremy Goon, chief sustainability officer, Wilmar International

Even as it works on its One Map policy, the Indonesian government has been reluctant to make its existing concession maps publicly available to public forest monitoring platforms such as the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch or the Haze Tracker, a new tool launched by SIIA on Wednesday. This is due to “sovereignty concerns“, it says.

But this is no reason for companies themselves to insist on keeping their own concession maps private, Aida Greenbury, managing director of sustainability for Asia Pulp and Paper told Eco-Business.

APP has embraced a policy of “radical transparency” by making its list of suppliers and concession maps publicly available as well as inviting an external audit of its progress on protecting forests, she added. 

“Transparency takes you halfway to finding solutions,” she noted, urging more companies to be similarly open about their operations.

Recently, the industry body RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) has made it mandatory for its members to make their concession maps available. Companies outside the RSPO membership are not bound by such rules. 

Focus on the forest

Bustar Maitar, head of Greenpeace International’s Indonesia forest campaign, said that while measures by companies to ensure that their own operations and concessions are deforestation-free are essential, the conversation has to focus on the rate of deforestation and climate change. 

Despite significant progress - such as the fact that 60 per cent of the world’s traded palm oil is now subject to zero-deforestation commitments - “our forest still remains under threat” and climate change still continues, said Maitar. 

He went on to praise the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP) as an example of proactive efforts by businesses to drive sustainability, even in the absence of effective government legislation.

IPOP is an agreement made last September among some of the biggest names in palm oil to raise the sustainability of the industry, through ensuring that their operations do not destroy forest or peat lands, and working with the Indonesian government on policy reform. 

Signatories include Asian Agri, Cargill, Golden Agri-Resources, Wilmar and the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Their commitment can “prove to other businesses in sector that no deforestation is possible,” said Maitar. 

He urged smaller companies in the industry, as well as other forest commodity businesses to follow suit, joking that companies should “join the club” before Greenpeace persuaded them to do so through a targeted campaign. 

The companies who had signed onto IPOP should also agree on how to deal with recalcitrant suppliers, said Maitar. If one company’s supplier refused to shift away from unsustainable practices despite efforts at education and engagement, all companies should agree not to work with them in the future, he recommended. 

Goon agreed, noting that such action was necessary for the pledge to have a “transformational effect”. 

Thinking big picture

APP’s Greenbury also stressed that truly effective forest conservation was not just about protecting the concessions that the companies owned, but protecting the wider landscape.

This has been the philosophy behind APP’s ‘landscape approach’, which complements their zero-deforestation commitment by working with various stakeholders to restore peat and forest ecosystems outside their concessions. 

Experts agreed, saying that a landscape approach was also essential to preventing haze-causing forest fires, as “fire does not respect boundaries”. 

Ultimately, the issues of haze and deforestation in the region needed more collaboration between all stakeholders in the industry, including even banks and financial institutions. 

“Palm oil is a versatile crop which will be important” in the future, said Wilmar’s Goon. “For us to remain relevant and competitive, things have to change.”

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