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By Stephen Gardner. Some big dominoes have been toppled in recent months in the battle against deforestation.


In January, Mars said it would no longer buy Brazilian beef from suppliers associated with primary forest clearance, and would use only traceable, certified pulp, paper and soy. The commitments will be phased in until 2020.

Also in January, Singapore-based Wilmar, the world's largest palm oil trader, earned kudos for its new palm oil supply-chain transparency dashboard. Wilmar committed in December 2013 to a "No deforestation, no peat, no exploitation" policy, meaning it will only buy from suppliers that protect forests and peatland and that pay attention to their social impact. The transparency dashboard lists all of Wilmar's Indonesian and Malaysian palm oil suppliers and is intended as a basis for engagement with interested parties. Such pledges are quite a turnaround for a company that Newsweek in 2012 said was the world's least green.

Other major companies have also made recent pledges to combat deforestation – Cargill, Asia Pulp and Paper, P&G. So does it add up to a trend? Is a tipping point approaching that could signal hope for the world's forests?

Well, maybe. Commitments such as Wilmar's shouldn't be underestimated, says Mark Sanderson of the Forests Trust, which helped Wilmar with its transparency dashboard. About 45 percent of the world's palm oil passes through Wilmar's hands, and the company has in effect "undressed in public," opening itself up to scrutiny. "If they're serious about what they're doing, which it would appear they are, it's going to impact the entire industry," Sanderson says.

Naomi Basik, manager of the forest trade and finance initiative at Washington DC based Forest Trends, says that companies have made "significant progress," especially on palm oil, with 16 percent of global production now certified and "more than half of the commodity trade controlled by companies that have made zero-deforestation pledges."

Commitments such as Wilmar's are also valuable because such companies understand, arguably better than anyone, what causes deforestation. Wilmar itself notes that the "major driver of global deforestation comes from the demand for four critical agricultural commodities – cattle products, palm oil, timber products and soy." It is companies such as Wilmar that are in a position to do something about it.

But now comes the hard part. Recent pledges might be impressive, but they will not be implemented overnight. "The transformational process takes a little bit longer," says Sanderson.

Basik says that corporate promises on deforestation mean that "civil society is now tasked with holding these companies accountable and ensuring that their pledges are implemented in a timely and transparent manner."

And the forest-clearance picture remains grim. Hundreds of thousands of hectares are still lost each year in key countries such as Brazil and Indonesia. Illegal conversion of forest for agriculture or plantations to supply developed and emerging countries remains rife. Recent corporate pledges might be hopeful shafts of sunlight through the canopy, but they still have much to do to prove their worth.

A version of this article was published on Innovation Forum.

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