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Efforts to Curb Destructive Palm Oil Plantations Brings Together Strange Bedfellows

Will corporations and activists join forces to end deforestation in Indonesia?

September brought good news for the world’s forests with the unveiling of the New York Declaration on Forests at the UN Climate Summit. The Declaration, which pledges to end global deforestation by 2030, was signed by 130 governments, including the US, Germany, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Perhaps most significantly, it was also backed by commitments from 40 major food corporations to eliminate palm oil grown on deforested land from their supply chains.

Deforestation in IndonesiaPhoto by Rainforest Action Network An estimated 80 percent of forest destruction in Indonesia between 2000 and 2012 was illegal. Palm plantations were responsible for three-quarters of this illegal deforestation.

That’s a big deal, given that palm oil has been the single largest driver of tropical deforestation in recent years. When the medical establishment deemed trans-fats heart-unhealthy in the mid-1990s, demand for the supposedly more benign palm oil soared, increasing nearly six-fold since the year 2000. Palm oil is now used in nearly half of all foods on supermarket shelves, added to everything from breakfast cereals to margarine to potato chips. It is also an ingredient in shampoo, soaps, cosmetics, toothpaste, and laundry detergents, and is used as a feedstock for biofuels.

Palm oil is cheap. It is the highest yielding oil crop in the world, and the most abundant. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that every hour, an area of rainforest the size of 300 football fields is cleared to make way for new palm oil production — mainly in Indonesia, the country with the highest rate of deforestation in the world.

At this breakneck and still accelerating pace, 98 percent of the Indonesian rainforest will be gone by 2022, and along with it one of the greatest remaining biodiversity treasure troves on Earth. The palm oil boom has been a disaster for the orangutan, the Sumatran tiger, the clouded leopard, the pigmy elephant, and countless lesser known endangered species whose homelands are rapidly being converted to large-scale plantations.

It has also been catastrophic for the climate. Indonesia is currently the third largest carbon polluting country in the world, trailing only China and the US. Over 85 percent of the nation’s emissions come from forest destruction, which releases carbon stored in trees and ancient peatland swamps into the atmosphere. Once cleared, the peatlands dry out and are often set on fire, smoldering for months or even years, and transforming the greatest carbon sinks on the planet into leading carbon dioxide emitters. These fires were also responsible for the dangerous haze that caused work in Singapore and southern Malaysia to grind to a halt for weeks during June and July of 2013.

The group Forest Trends estimates that 80 percent of forest destruction in Indonesia between 2000 and 2012 was illegal, occurring outside the bounds of the concessions that the government has set aside for commercial development. Palm plantations were responsible for three-quarters of this illegal deforestation.

In 2007, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) launched a campaign to persuade Cargill — the largest exporter of palm oil into the US, and one of a handful of traders that dominate the industry — to stop buying oil grown on newly cut forests and peatlands. When Cargill refused to budge, RAN changed its strategy and began targeting the company’s clients, the so-called “snack food 20,” which includes corporations like Hershey’s, General Mills, and Kraft.

This new tactic paid off. Some of the high profile brands began demanding that their suppliers get serious about deforestation. And in September, Cargill announced a sweeping no-deforestation policy and endorsed the New York Declaration on Forests, joining other major palm oil traders including the Singapore-based Wilmar and the Indonesian company Golden Agri-Resources. The two leading pulp and paper companies in Indonesia, Asia Pacific Resources International Limited and Asian Pulp and Paper, have followed suit with their own commitments.

Over half of the “Snack Food 20” have also joined the no-deforestation pledge, including Mars, Nestle, Kellogg’s and Unilever. These companies have also agreed to drop suppliers who produce palm oil on stolen and misappropriated lands, or that use forced or child labor.

“The last few months have seen a welcome race to the top,” Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, said in a press release. “Consumers have sent companies a clear signal that they do not want their purchasing habits to drive deforestation and companies are responding.”

But there are still some notable holdouts. The food and beverage giant PepsiCo has not yet committed to protecting worker and community land rights. Kraft, Heinz, Nissin Foods, and Campbell’s Soup have offered no credible public commitment to change their palm oil procurement practices.  Malaysia-based commodity trader Kuala Lampur Kepong and Singapore-based Musim Mas have likewise refused to make commitments concerning palm oil practices.

Gemma Tillack, agribusiness campaign director at RAN, called on investors in these laggard companies to “put pressure on them to address these gaps.” In an interview, Tillack added that, even amongst the cooperating companies, “most still lack comprehensive, time-bound implementation plans.” They also have yet to develop credible grievance mechanisms to allow NGOs, labor groups, and indigenous communities in Indonesia to raise complaints when they observe instances of noncompliance.

Traceability will play a key role in implementing no-deforestation policies in Indonesia. Fortunately, Global Forest Watch (GFW), an online forest monitoring and support system, has used satellite imagery to create a multilayered, interactive map of Indonesia’s forest lands — a valuable tool for increasing transparency throughout the supply chain. Using this map, GFW is currently advising Unilever about which of its mills are more likely to be engaged in illegal activities like burning and deforestation; information that Unilever will then use to conduct investigations on the ground.

“We supply the data which companies use to better manage their supply chains, and NGOs use to look for violations and issues to focus on,” said Elizabeth Baer, GFW’s global commodities manager. “We think it’s amazing that advocacy has worked and driven these companies to make such ambitious commitments — the pace of change is unlike anything that I’ve seen before in my career. But it’s incredibly challenging for these companies to make good on their pledges within the time frame they’ve promised. So there is a lot of effort, a lot of resources and brainpower being poured in to help them do so.”

In addition to tracking developments on the ground, GFW is negotiating with both food corporations and NGOs to hammer out basic ground rules and definitions for the no-deforestation pledge — like what constitutes a “forest,” and how conflicts between all of the various stakeholders are to be adjudicated and resolved.

Some environmental groups remain wary of corporate motives, and plan to carefully monitor the developments on the ground in Indonesia to make sure that the public commitments don’t end up as exercises in “greenwashing and delay,” as one recent RAN blog put it.

The jury is still out on whether the New York Declaration on Forests will halt the bulldozers that are clearing Indonesia’s magnificent rainforest. Nevertheless, Tillack is guardedly hopeful: “In the last 12 months we’ve seen an unprecedented shift toward adopting responsible palm oil production standards. But the devil is in the details, and now it is time to put these commitments into action. We’ll be working hard to hold companies to account to insure that they are implementing their pledges.”

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