Forests and agriculture | Qa

A lot less talk and a lot more action

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Landscape approach gives the big picture

The scale of deforestation’s immediate challenges require urgent action – and we’re not making progress fast enough, argues Brendan May, speaking with Innovation Forum's Ian Welsh

What are the trends in company forests policy that have impressed you in the past 12 months?

More and more companies have made major commitments to ending deforestation – including some who previously said that they couldn’t or that it was too difficult. This means the trailblazer companies that led the way have had a meaningful impact on their sectors to encourage others to follow.

In terms of big potential impact for the long-term, what have been the most encouraging developments?

The development of the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge has been good to see, as has the Rainforest Alliance’s independent evaluation of Asia Pulp and Paper’s forest conservation policy – the first ever such analysis of a no-deforestation commitment.

TFT’s creation of the Centre for Social Excellence in Jakarta, Indonesia, which is going to build capacity to handle social and community problems, is a crucial development. In southeast Asia in general, it is still too much a case of big western companies and NGOs telling people what to do when, in fact, local capacity remains very limited. Developing that capability is essential.

And recently, we’ve seen the first ever retirement of commercial plantations, by Asia Pulp and Paper*, in order to protect peatland. That was unprecedented by any standard.

Where are the corporate leaders on deforestation now? Is there a changing of the guard?

It’s significant that it is big producer companies in the developing world – from sectors such as palm oil and pulp and paper – that are now leading the charge. The huge challenge is government policy and the political will to enable these companies to make good on their commitments.

Does business now accept that something has to be done about deforestation and we are moving into a "how to do it" phase?

The business case for action is now well established. But it’s not just about how we are going to do something but how quickly. It’s a year since the New York forests declaration at the UN, when there was rhetoric aplenty from governments and companies about cutting deforestation. Since then, however, what have we seen in terms of action plans and concrete commitments? Not a lot. We need to inject some pace – transformation of business models that we need is simply not happening fast enough. 

Focusing on business model changes – what is required? A complete re-think of the valuation of forests?

If we are to change business models for the long term then we must recalibrate options for people. For small holder farmers, for example, we need to have in place incentives for them that make it worth more to them to help preserve forests rather than contribute to their destruction. We need to enlist local communities in the efforts to leave forests standing. But as every pocket of land has different challenges, we need to look at them all on a case-by-case basis.

Therefore, do you agree that a landscape approach is what we need to adopt, developing a tailored approach to developing solutions?

There is an emerging concept of the landscape level approach – a clear realisation that there is no point in one company trying to save one part of a peatland, for example, if other operators nearby aren’t doing the same. To do this means bringing together all the social, economic and environmental factors – which in turn requires political and financial investment.

Observers who haven’t been to Indonesia or Brazil don’t always realise the vast effort, in the field, that goes into developing a no deforestation policy. The landscapes are extraordinarily complex, and a blanket “one-size-fits-all” approach doesn’t work. Gold standard approaches – such as assessments using the high carbon stock (HCS) toolkit – are very useful, but the nitty-gritty is complicated and the solutions need to be tailored to the particular situation.

It’s important to remember that what might be standard practice in one location may be ten years off in another given the nuances in social, economic and political development.

Is the developing debate about what “high carbon stock” actually means helpful? Or is the originally established HCS toolkit the way to go?

It is unfortunate that following the development of the HCS toolkit there is now an apparent attempt to dilute it. This has certainly raised eyebrows at the companies and organisations that were involved in hard work creating the original toolkit.

There are certain standards that are generally regarded as the best – the gold standard – and the HCS toolkit is one of those. Nothing less than this approach will deliver companies’ no-deforestation goals.

Taking everything into account, then, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the direction of travel is on deforestation?

I’m neither one nor the other. There are very real grounds for optimism when you see companies taking bold and innovative leadership positions. But then it’s easy to be brought back to earth through lack of real action on the changes required.

There is still too much talk and grandiose speechmaking. And even when we have “no-deforestation” policies, it can be hard to compare them and gauge progress, when they are on different time horizons or with contrasting ideologies and definitions. That is why the HCS toolkit is so important.

The deforestation problem can’t wait – it needs action now. 

Brendan May is chairman of Robertsbridge, sponsors of Innovation Forum’s deforestation conferences in Singapore and London. *Asia Pulp and Paper is a Robertsbridge client.

Join leading brands and NGOs for incite and debate on what business can do about deforestation. Click here for details of the conference in Singapore 28th-29th September and here for details of the London conference 2nd-3rd November.

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