How to define ‘no deforestation’

After years of debate companies have finally agreed on a standard for forest protection. Now it’s time to turn words into action, writes Deborah Lapidus.

Over the past three years, thanks in large part to responsible sourcing policies adopted by leading consumer goods manufacturers and retailers, several of the world’s largest agribusinesses that once destroyed rainforests to cultivate palm oil, wood products, soy, and cattle have committed to sweeping “no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation” (NDPE) policies.

To put these policies into practice, a multi-stakeholder group called the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA) Steering Group was set up to establish protocols for determining which lands should be prohibited for development under NDPE policies and which lands are suitable for expansion. Last year, the HCSA Steering Group put out its first toolkit on how to implement the standard (available at www.highcarbonstock.org). The HCSA incorporates several values into one methodology: stopping climate change, protecting biodiversity and respecting the right of local communities to give or withhold their free, prior and informed consent to development on their lands.

But despite the strong NGO and company consensus on the HCSA standard, there emerged a new group of companies which sought to develop an alternative definition of deforestation. To add to the confusion, this group carried a very similar name to the other, calling itself the High Carbon Stock Study Group, and the standard they developed was called HCS+ (which we always thought might better be referred to as HCS Minus). Their methodology primarily emphasised carbon over other social or ecological values and allowed significantly more leeway for clearing forests.

For far too long, some companies used the debate over the standards as an excuse to delay implementation of forest protection altogether. Our worry was that by the time the discussions were over, the forests would be gone.

But now it appears the light at the end of the tunnel is near. In November, companies on all sides and key NGOs reached an agreement that will bring all the standards together, following a year-long convergence process. The details are described in the agreement statement and organisations’ and companies’ joint press release.

Organisations reaching this agreement are major palm oil traders Asian Agri, Cargill, Golden Agri-Resources, IOI, KLK, Musim Mas, Sime Darby, and Wilmar; the world’s largest buyer of palm oil, Unilever; and leading NGOs including the Forest Peoples Programme, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, Forest Trust, Union of Concerned Scientists, and World Wildlife Fund. The convergence team deserves praise for their achievement in working through thorny and complex issues and being able to bridge differences for the sake of forests and communities.

Now, time and energy can be focused on the real work of implementation, which means that companies need to be conducting HCS assessments before any new plantings or expansion take place, and training all suppliers on how to implement the standard. Companies that haven’t yet joined the HCSA Steering Group should do so, including those in other sectors at risk of deforestation, such as pulp and paper, rubber, soy, and cattle. Companies which took advantage of the debate to delay forest protection are out of excuses.

Food retailers, foodservice providers and consumer goods manufacturers with forest conservation policies should be breathing a sigh of relief because now any suppliers that are committed to the HCSA standard will be speaking the same language when they commit to “no deforestation”. There will be a common set of criteria by which to evaluate supplier compliance. And there will be fewer circumstances in which suppliers can try to explain away deforestation due to differences in understanding of what the word means.

Food retailers and service providers can help foster even greater industry alignment by calling upon the 3,000-member Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to adopt the HCSA standard into the RSPO criteria, which currently still allows for deforestation. Adopting the HCSA standard would provide clear directive to companies and assessors, restore RSPO’s legitimacy and end marketplace confusion. It’s time to finally turn the corner on defining deforestation and start actually saving forests.

Deborah Lapidus is campaigns director at US environmental campaign group Mighty.

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