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Leon Kaye headshot

Agreement Reached on 'No Deforestation' Standards for Palm Oil Companies

By Leon Kaye

After water scarcity, deforestation is arguably one of the most pressing environmental issues of the 21st century. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has long suggested that as many as 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods. And over the years, many environmental groups and publications touted forests as the “world’s lungs” for their role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and working as a massive carbon sink.

But due to the growing demand for fuel, beef, timber, paper and commodity crops, the world’s forests -- along with the people who live within or rely on them -- are under constant threat.

After commercial agriculture and cattle, the multinational insurance company Allianz named palm oil as the third largest driver of global deforestation. And demand for this product, which goes into just about everything from snacks to personal care products, only keeps growing -- behooving the industry to take more proactive action. Deforestation resulting from the conversion of land into palm oil plantations has become a huge problem in Indonesia, where land rights are often ignored, wildlife is disappearing and air pollution from the burning down of natural forests for agricultural purposes has become a public health disaster.

More organizations, whether they use palm oil or not, have become cognizant of the the fact that forests are an important pillar of the global economy, and that these lands need to be preserved and managed correctly if the world will support 9 billion people by 2050.

How to act in order to stall and even stop deforestation, however, poses many difficult challenges. To that end, a coalition of businesses and nonprofits agreed to a set of standards in Bangkok this week that it insists can make global deforestation commitments more seamless to develop, implement and enforce.

The result is a new set of standards that merge two different deforestation guidelines. A working group, which has been in discussions for a year, took principles from both the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA) and High Carbon Stock (HCS+) methodologies. One must really get into the weeds (or the trees) of both standards to really measure the differences between these zero-deforestation guidelines. Nevertheless, a more streamlined set of guidelines should eliminate confusion over deforestation policies within companies – while forcing them to become more transparent about their supply chains and operations.

The result is an agreement that stakeholders say will offer the palm oil industry more clarity on how it can implement no-deforestation claims about their operations. Fundamentally, there are three areas of focus by which companies will be measured as they publicly disclose their no-deforestation commitments.

Social requirements: One of the largest problems palm oil production causes is displacing people off their lands. Many of these citizens lived in their communities for generations, but had no official title to their land. The principles of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), which give indigenous people the right to grant or not grant access to lands on which they live, took greater root in recent years. Guidance on how to mitigate impact on people and their lands will assumedly include FPIC; the final standards are expected to be completed by the end of 2017.

Young regenerating forest (YRF): One reason why the High Carbon Stock guidelines have become more accepted by NGOs and companies is that they use copious amounts of data to suggest what types of forest areas should be preserved, versus what lands are better primed for development. One key classification of land is “young regenerating forest” (YRF). These recently cleared forests have gained much regrowth and still house patches old-growth forests. They are a grey area: They fall within the “no deforestation” zone, but could also be important to local economic development. These new standards protect larger swathes of land with old-growth forests, but also give local communities say in how these YRF lands are maintained.

Carbon: This working group has called for a more sophisticated system on how to measure carbon stock data, which in turn can have an impact on decisions related to forest development or preservation. In addition, soil quality will have even greater emphasis; the accounting of carbon within peatlands will become even more important (as these ecosystems are a huge carbon sink); and measurement tools more aligned with those of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) will become the standard as companies will soon become required to be even more transparent when they disclose their carbon footprints.

In recent years, more companies have made bolder commitments to stamp out deforestation within their palm oil supply chains. But WFF and other NGOs express concern that these policies are ambiguous and are difficult to verify. A clearer set of guidelines on how to implement no-deforestation policies will not only benefit local communities and forests, but also companies, as more transparency will result in more trust from consumers and stakeholders.

Image credit: Glenn Hurowitz/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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