A New Framework to Halt Palm Oil Deforestation?

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GUEST AUTHOR: Mike Gaworeski | Environmental journalist and contributor for Mongabay | @mikeg2001

This story previously appeared on Mongabay. It appears here under a Creative Commons license.


There is now one set of guidelines, agreed upon by both industry and civil society, for palm oil companies to use when implementing their commitments to address the deforestation associated with their operations.

As demand for palm oil has skyrocketed in recent years, production of the commodity has often been associated with massive deforestation and the destruction of vital wildlife habitat as well as human and labor rights abuses, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia, which collectively produce the vast majority of the world’s palm oil.

There have been a variety of responses to the impacts of palm oil production on tropical forests, from local protests by impacted forest peoples and international pressure campaigns launched against palm oil companies to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the world’s largest certification body for the palm oil sector (which has often been at the center of controversy), and national-level initiatives such as the pledge to protect tropical forests by prioritizing sustainable palm oil production signed by seven African nations that are widely viewed as the next big expansion opportunity for the industry.

Numerous companies involved in the global palm oil supply chain, from producers and traders to consumer companies that use the commodity in their products, have adopted Zero Deforestation Commitments, as well. But pledging to address the deforestation and human rights abuses associated with palm oil supply chains is one thing, while making those commitments a reality on the ground is another.

Recent research has shown that companies routinely underestimate their exposure to deforestation and are not making swift progress in implementing their deforestation pledges. This has not only raised doubts that these companies can meet their own goals but has also fueled speculation that the deforestation targets for 2020 and 2030 adopted by the Consumer Goods Forum, a global network of over 400 companies, and signatories to the UN’s New York Declaration on Forests, which include dozens of national and sub-national governments, multinational companies, indigenous groups, and civil society organizations, are unlikely to be met.

Companies have said they need more support from governments of tropical forest nations to make their Zero Deforestation Commitments a reality, citing a maze of administrative and regulatory frameworks across palm oil producing countries as hampering their efforts.

The new HCS Approach Toolkit might help address this very issue, however, as it is intended to standardize the methodology for protecting tropical forests and identifying suitable landscapes for the sustainable production of palm oil.

New oil palm development near the boundary of Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, an Indonesian island. Photo by Rhett Butler.

Until late last year, there were two competing methodologies for determining what constitutes a “High Carbon Stock” landscape and guiding conversion of land to oil palm plantations in a sustainable manner: The High Carbon Stock Approach (HCS Approach), which was first developed in 2010 by a coalition of businesses and civil society groups (the first HCS Approach Toolkit was released in 2015); and HCS+, put forward in 2015 by a group called the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto (SPOM).

It was announced in November 2016 that a body called the HCS Convergence Working Group, which includes major producers and traders of palm oil as well as forest conservation and human rights NGOs, were working on a revised HCS Approach Toolkit that would represent convergence between the two approaches.

The newly updated HCS Approach Toolkit lays out the fundamental elements of a methodology for protecting high carbon stock (HCS) forests and other high conservation value (HCV) areas such as peatlands. But achieving “Zero Deforestation” is not the only goal of the revised HCS Approach, as the role forests play in regulating the global climate by sequestering carbon and the implementation of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) for indigenous and other forest communities are also factored into the toolkit. Other issues, such as forest stratification, preservation of below-ground carbon stocks, and decision-making around regenerating and secondary forests, which were central to the disagreement between the HCSA and HCS+ approaches, are also dealt with in the new methodology.

Grant Rosoman, a forest campaigner with Greenpeace who also serves as co-chair of the High Carbon Stock Steering Group, the multi-stakeholder membership organization created specifically to govern the HCS Approach, said that the revised, open-source toolkit provides a practical and “scientifically robust” technical guide for identifying and protecting tropical forests.

After two years of working to craft one single approach for putting “No Deforestation” commitments into practice, Rosoman said in a statement, “The resulting methodology has expanded social requirements, a wider recognition and application of carbon stock data, incorporates new technology including the use of LiDAR, optimises conservation and production outcomes and includes adaptations for smallholders.”

Nitrogen-fixing cover crop and integrated pest management-friendly flowers in an oil palm plantation in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by Rhett Butler.

The hope is that having one set of guidelines agreed upon by industry and civil society will finally provide the necessary tools to clean up the global palm oil supply chain.

“With the launch of the new toolkit we now have an agreed methodology that will reach deep into the supply chains of key commodities to halt tropical deforestation, in particular palm oil and in Asia Pacific and Africa,” Rosoman said. “The HCS Approach is preventing the clearance of millions of hectares of forest, and will help ensure that the many products on supermarket shelves that have palm oil ingredients or made from paper, are not contributing to deforestation, peatland destruction or exploitation.”

Rosoman added that there is yet work to be done to expand the scope and impact of the HCS Approach. “Support for the HCS Approach continues to grow and expand to other commodities such as rubber and cocoa, as well as into the finance sector,” he said. “Going forward we still have work to do to adapt HCSA for smallholders, to field test draft social requirements, bring the HCS forest carbon estimates into national level carbon accounting, and progress how No Deforestation is implemented in regions with high forest cover.”

Now that the HCS Approach Toolkit Version 2.0 is out, the High Carbon Stock Steering Group will focus on pilot initiatives that will apply the revised methodology and strengthened social requirements to smallholders and larger farming operations.

“The HCSA is now a well-established benchmark for responsible production,” Deborah Lapidus, campaign director for Mighty Earth, a new member of the High Carbon Stock Steering Group, told Mongabay. “With over 100 major palm oil companies signed up to the HCSA, and clear guidelines on how to implement it contained within the Toolkit, there are no more excuses for companies like POSCO Daewoo and Korindo that continue to destroy rainforests.”

Adherence to the HCS Approach Toolkit’s standards will not only benefit forests, wildlife, and forest peoples, but will also be good for business, as “global consumers and investors are increasingly seeking out business from responsible supply chain actors and excluding those who can’t meet sustainability performance standards,” Lapidus said.

“Looking forward, we urge global commodity traders and producers to bring the successes of HCSA in Southeast Asia to Africa and Latin America to ensure global forest conservation and climate change mitigation,” she added. “And we urge RSPO to view the widespread adoption of HCSA as a signal that it’s finally time they recognize the value of secondary forests and peatlands when they review their principles and criteria this year.”


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Oil palm estate and rainforest in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by Rhett Butler.
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