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Promises to keep: Can private sector ensure success of zero-deforestation pledges?

Experts discuss the New York Declaration on Forests.
Deforestación en Riau, Sumatra, Indonesia. Aulia Erlangga/ Fotografía de CIFOR

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BOGOR, Indonesia—The aim of last year’s New York Declaration on Forests is an ambitious one: Halve deforestation by 2020 and eliminate it altogether by 2030.

But the heaviest burden of ensuring the success of the non-binding declaration will fall largely to the 34 private companies that signed it, say two experts who point to the steep challenges faced in weeding out unsustainably sourced raw materials from corporate supply chains.

On the other side of the equation: The innumerable smallholders who supply these companies face heightened scrutiny—and risk being pushed out of business, with damaging ramifications for family livelihoods and rural economies.

The two experts, both from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), recently spoke about the ramifications of the New York declaration—and other recent corporate zero-deforestation pledges—on the eve of the World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty, where many of the signatories of the declaration, corporations among them, will be present.

“These are large companies that produce key global goods—like oil palm, sugar and beef,” said Steven Lawry, Director of Forests and Governance research at CIFOR. “They are having a direct significant impact on the forest landscape. What’s significant is that a very large number of the principal commodity-producing companies in the world signed onto the declaration.”

But making promises is one thing; keeping them is another.

To that, Lawry points to a template for success: a previous (and similarly ambitious) covenant signed in 2006, the Soy Moratorium (SoyM), in which major soybean traders pledged not to purchase soy grown on lands in the Brazilian Amazon that were deforested after July 2006. As a result, only about 1 percent of new soy agriculture expansion in Brazil came at the expense of forest, according to a study by scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The success of SoyM bodes well for the declaration signed in New York, Lawry said.

“The incentive there was for the companies to get access to global soy markets,” he said. “If they didn’t sign the pledge, then they lost access to those markets.”


A world away from corporate boardrooms, though, is where the declaration meets the dirt—and therein lies the crux of the challenge, says Krystof Obidzinski, a senior scientist at CIFOR.

Major corporations often rely on a constellation of small farmers—smallholders, in development parlance—to supply them with crops. This is keenly evident in Indonesia where, Obidzinski says, there has been an explosion of new smallholders in the past few years.

This adds a serious layer of complexity.

“In order for large companies to implement the zero-deforestation pledge, they will have to ensure that all of their suppliers, wherever they are in Indonesia, have deforestation-free supply lines,” Obidzinski said. “So that means that these people, these thousands of agents or middlemen or whoever they are in the supply chain, will have to be checked and traced to ensure that there is no deforestation taking place in this network, in this maze of suppliers to this particular big company.”

Obidzinski expressed concern about the difficulty of extensive vetting of suppliers, which may lead companies to abandon thorough checks, or that thorough checking will punish and exclude smaller suppliers. The informal sector remains unmapped, he said, with a lack of information available about the strength of the smallholder economy, its management practices, chemical use and supply chains.

“All these things need to be better understood in order to understand how we can safeguard these smallholders and growers of oil palm so they’re not adversely affected by zero deforestation,” he said.

If successful, the New York Declaration on Forests could prevent—according to the declaration’s action statement—between 4.5 billion and 8.8 billion metric tons of carbon emissions per year by 2030. This is equal to the emissions avoided by taking all the world’s cars off the road.

As consumers increasingly vote with their dollars, private companies will feel the pressure to truly aim for the targets, Lawry said.

“That provides great potential for there to be significant benefits to the environment in terms of the reduced deforestation, great protection of biodiversity and reduced greenhouse gas emissions associated with deforestation,” he said.

“These are the significant benefits to be had.”

For more information about CIFOR’s research on zero-deforestation pledges, please contact Steven Lawry at s.lawry@cgiar.org.

CIFOR’s research on deforestation forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.


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