Saving forests the company way. Can it work?

A female tiger looks on after spotting a camera trap set by Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant conservation (DNP), Freeland, at at forest in Eastern Thailand, in this undated handout photo. DNP/Freeland Handout

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"The best way to understand companies is to talk to them," says former BBC business correspondent Mark Gregory

By Mark Gregory

For decades forests have been ripped down to meet the global demand for agricultural products, ranging from the palm oil in your ice cream, to the soymeal that fed the chicken you ate for lunch. 

Within the last ten years, however, at least 400 companies which grow, trade and sell products that drive the destruction have made promises to try do things differently by reducing or eliminating the deforestation embedded in their supply chains.

Some will dismiss these voluntary pledges as little more than “greenwash” for PR purposes but, even if you take that view, there is an undeniable need to the understand the context in which companies linked to deforestation work, and the obstacles they face. 

And the best way to understand companies is to talk to them.

The forestry and rights NGO Fern commissioned me and Duncan Brack to do just that. While other surveys have analysed the content of policy documents relating to deforestation, ours – we think the first of its kind - is based on in-depth interviews with senior executives in companies taking a lead on deforestation.   

Fifteen companies chose to engage, including Unilever, Nestlé, IKEA, Marks & Spencer, Cargill, the chocolate giant Mondelez, and APP (Asia Pulp and Paper Group). They did so subject to the condition that the interviews would be anonymised.

Because of this, their responses were probably more candid than if they’d spoken to us entirely on the record, and we gained a revealing insight into how major companies at the heart of the debate on land rights and deforestation view their role in tackling these issues, and the challenges they face in relation to four commodities which are behind much of the deforestation taking place in the tropics: palm oil, timber, cocoa and rubber. 

Fern believes that company promises on their own, while welcome, will not solve the problems. For that governments will need to take a lead. To a surprising extent, we found that companies agree.  

The areas where many of them thought it was essential for governments to step up to the plate include adopting and implementing clear and consistent policies on customary land tenure; land use planning on a regional scale and concession allocation; better protection of high conservation value (HCV) and high carbon stock (HCS) forests; mandatory registration of farmers; regular dialogue with companies; along with improvements to forest laws and more effective law enforcement.

That last point was strongly felt. Several companies spoke of the chaotic and anarchic conditions they faced on the ground operating in some countries where deforestation is rife.  

While companies that have made pledges saw the value of stronger government, we found little sign that many were prepared to make a fuss about the issue. One reason was that, in the words of an interviewee: “companies don’t like to get too involved in things not directly under their control”.   Raising contentious issues with tricky governments clearly fell into that category for many.

Other companies reported a stronger motive for keeping their heads down. They spoke of an increasing tendency by developing country governments, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia, to view talk of sustainability standards as a new form of colonialism imposed by Western governments and NGOs.

Interestingly, many companies said they saw tackling social issues, including disputes over land tenure and ownership, as a much higher priority than in the past, when attention tended to focus more on conservation and biodiversity. Some said they found social issues to be, in general, even more difficult to resolve than purely environmental problems.

Some Asian producer companies reported problems in finding capable and suitably trained people to carry out the complex and culturally sensitive procedures involved in ensuring the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of communities to new projects. They saw no easy solution, as the role requires a rare combination of talents, including cultural sensitivity, credibility with communities, specialist technical skills and willingness to spend time in remote places.    

Most companies were confident that they would achieve the targets they had set for themselves for reducing deforestation in in their own operations. Few, however, believed that high profile global-scale targets set out in the New York Declaration on Forests and by the Consumer Goods Forum will be met.  

The New York Declaration on Forests, agreed at the UN climate summit in 2014, obliges signatories to collectively halve deforestation by 2020 and eliminate it completely by 2030. The Consumer Goods Forum, a network of around 450 major companies and service providers in retailing and manufacturing, has a target of ending deforestation in its members’ supply chains by 2020. Companies we spoke to tended to think these broad goals were unrealistic, and a number pointed out that there was no way of checking whether the targets had been met or not.

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