Forests and agriculture | Opinion

Landscape approach: the big picture solution

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Trees out, commodities in

Tackling deforestation, and all the associated challenges, does need companies to think holistically and collaborate

The latest numbers on deforestation, particularly in the tropics, do not make for comfortable reading. New data from Global Forest Watch published by the World Resources Institute show 29.4m hectares of forest were wiped out in 2017, the second worst year on record for global tree cover loss. “We’re trying to put out a house fire with a teaspoon,” is how WRI senior fellow Frances Seymour characterises the overall current response to land conservation.

In the absence of a silver bullet, action has so far been largely piecemeal. Led by brand commitments and carried through by NGO partners and some supplier companies, there has been a mix of approaches adopted to solve an incredibly complex and sensitive issue.

Holistic thinking

But the landscape approach – which sees companies collaborating to address land use issues that span multiple sectors – continues to gain traction. After all, solving deforestation is about protecting biodiversity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The degradation and loss of important land is just as important as losing trees. The social impacts on indigenous peoples are also a crucial factor.

To truly succeed, the pool of committed collaborators must extend beyond the brands to the supplier agri companies too. Five or ten years ago there was thinking that all that was required to address global deforestation was a couple of big brands to clean up their supply chains and the problem would be solved.

More impact required

Instead, it’s become clear that a few enlightened leaders tackling deforestation through their supply chains is a very different thing to tackling global deforestation. Ruth Thomas, director of strategy and operations at the Global Agribusiness Alliance points to a concern that big brands are “moving their sourcing from high- to low-risk areas so that they can meet deforestation targets”. Moreover, given 137 of the biggest retailers are buying just 10% of global palm oil (says WWF) focusing on big brand leaders does not give sufficient impact on eradicating global deforestation.

One other major concern is that brands are using zero-deforestation pledges and policies merely as proxies for action being taken on the ground, with the at-risk landscapes just as vulnerable. According to data included in the newly launched Trase Yearbook 2018, Brazilian soy traders with zero-deforestation commitments made between 2006 and 2016 are associated with just as much “deforestation risk” as companies that have not made such commitments.

Action and impact does tend to significantly lag making a commitment. So while more than 60 companies have signed up to the Cerrado manifesto to help protect the vulnerable savannah lands in Brazil, it is too early to say whether it will have the desired effect, for example.

Extracting lessons

The agricultural sector has much to learn from how the mining industry actively manages landscapes. It has many more years’ experience in making long-term investments in non-performing assets – ie land owned but not yet used for mining operations. They have focused not merely on environmental conservation of land, but the wellbeing and livelihoods of those directly impacted by their activity.

Of course, transparency and traceability is crucial for all actors in the supply chain. Cargill, for example, has started to collect plantations coordinates within high priority landscapes and will extend it to a global collection by 2020. It is an approach favoured by Nestlé too, perhaps superseding, in part, commitment to certification – which is another story as highlighted by its recent suspension from the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

Writing on his blog, Chris Meyer from the Environmental Defence Fund also highlights Olam’s living landscape policy, which, he says, amounts to a change in plantation development and purchasing strategies. The focus of the strategy is to collaborate with local stakeholders in landscapes and try to make a holistic positive impact rather than mitigating negative impact. Another good example is the Cocoa and Forests Initiative for cocoa supply chains in Ghana and Ivory Coast. 

Collaboration, collaboration

Companies will only be able to achieve ultimate traceability if they work closely with trusted partners on the ground, as well as the producers, communities around plantations and individual smallholder farmers.

And what can still get lost in the debate is that the deforestation story is not just an environmental conservation one but also about poverty alleviation and human rights. “Policies and pledges are a much needed starting point but they are not the end game,” adds Thomas. She argues for moving away from using them as a proxy for outcomes on the ground, which underscores a need for stronger, aligned and more progressive supply-side action. After all, tackling fires needs coordinated action by everyone affected before they come under control.

Join 250 business experts – including from Unilever, Mars, Sime Darby, Diageo, H+M and Olam – in London on
6th-7th November for Innovation Forum’s inaugural sustainable landscapes conference.

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