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Can business and NGOs get deforestation-free vows to take root?

At a recent TFD forum, NGOs and leaders from diverse industries discussed the challenges and found fertile ground for agreement and ideas.

The NY Declarations on Forests (PDF) and the recent flurry of corporate deforestation-free commitments could reverse alarming trends in large-scale forest conversion driven by agricultural commodities. In the words of WRI’s Global Director of Forests, Nigel Sizer, “There are extraordinarily powerful players paying attention to this issue now; let’s be sure to build on the momentum.” But while the commitments send a strong signal to the marketplace and to governments that we need dramatic changes in how commodities are produced, the devil — as always — is in the details.

Does “deforestation-free” mean the same thing to a small-holder farmer in Indonesia as to the head of procurement in a U.S.-based multinational corporation or to the government of a forest-rich developing country? How might policies set by international organizations engage local stakeholders in customized solutions? What are the key performance indicators, and how will these be verified?

As Skip Krasny, Kimberly-Clark’s manager of sustainable forestry programs and chair of the Consumer Goods Forum’s Paper and Pulp Working Group, said, “We need to understand all the nuances of what a seemingly simple pledge incorporates, how we’re going to make it work on the ground and how we’re going to measure success.”

Talking it out: Turning wicked problems into aligned action

The Forests Dialogue, a multi-stakeholder platform that uses focused dialogue and trust-building to resolve forest-related conflicts, recently held a dialogue at Yale University to begin to answer some of these questions. According to TFD co-leader Rod Taylor, director of WWF’s Global Forest Programme, the goal of the discussion was to “find the best ways to harness the surge of attention on eliminating deforestation without undermining the broader sustainable development agenda.”

Participants gathered from all over the world, representing everything from community organizations such as the African Women’s Network for Community Management of Forests to large consumer goods companies such as Kimberly-Clark Corporation. Campaigners and advocates such as Greenpeace and Forest Heroes, who have played a big part in driving the “zero” movement, participated alongside organizations such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, who are creating standards to verify sustainable commodity commitments.

Dialogue attendees articulated their perspectives on the most difficult challenges they were encountering in implementing deforestation-free commitments. One of the biggest surprises coming out of the conversation was “how differently each of us understands the problem we’re trying to solve for with respect to deforestation; from definitions all the way to solutions, this is a very complex topic and every organization is looking at it in a slightly different way,” according to Gary Dunning, TFD’s executive director.

Let’s be honest: Grappling with the fracture lines

One fracture line that emerged during discussions ran along this divide: are we aiming for an absolute halt to forest conversion, or are we really after a radical transformation in landscape level management that allows for some clearing in the interest of larger sustainable development goals?

For example, will eliminating production of soy in Brazilian forests lead to conversion of the tropical savannah known as the Brazilian Cerrado? Could strict no-deforestation policies prevent relocation of industrial activity from critical biodiversity corridors to forest areas with less conservation value? It is unclear how these policies will contribute to larger sustainable landscape management and restoration initiatives already in progress.

Along the same lines, questions arose on the impacts and unintended consequences of international companies and organizations setting rules for producer countries without their input and buy-in.

Deforestation in Peru

People look over a desolate scene of burned, deforested land near Moyobamba, Peru. (Credit: The Forests Dialogue)

Will commodity-by-commodity market signals from largely EU and U.S.-based companies simply cause those who clear forests to switch to another commodity or supply other less discerning markets? How might private sector policies mesh with government’s existing economic and environmental targets more collaboratively? And is there a way to leverage private sector commitments to achieve government change through strategic advocacy?

Much of the discussion centered on the need to engage local governments, forest-dependent communities and smallholders more effectively in an inclusive solution process that benefits them economically.

“We’re not expecting a single definition of deforestation-free policy,” said Milagre Nuvunga, executive director of MICAIA, an NGO that supports sustainable community development in Mozambique, “but we want these commitments to be based on (or linked to) processes that engage local communities and producers in solutions that work for them, too.”

Another theme that emerged was the lack of readily available supply of deforestation-free products, and no clear path forward to filling that gap quickly, cost-effectively, and credibly to meet the burgeoning demand.

While certification standards exist for palm oil and forest fiber, “these systems are designed to verify multiple attributes of responsible land management and fiber and other commodity sourcing, and should not be confused in the marketplace with claims that are more narrowly focused on deforestation targets,” said Sophie Beckham, International Paper’s global forest stewardship and sustainability manager.

And there are not yet any commonly accepted standards or methodologies for many other commodities, such as beef. New solutions are emerging but some are concerned that building different systems outside of the standard certification approach diffuses resources, takes a lot of time to gain stakeholder support and could lead to more confusion in the market place. This dynamic creates big headaches for corporate procurement managers and their suppliers alike.

Blazing a trail forward

Despite the challenges, the participants articulated a number of promising ways forward where stakeholders, using the TFD platform, could help.

Representatives from varied organizations meet to discuss deforestation

Representatives from varied organizations meet to discuss ways to end deforestation. (Credit: The Forests Dialogue)

Stakeholders could have more focused discussions in key deforestation hot spots with local producers, communities and governments on practical ways to implement deforestation free commitments in mutually beneficial ways. This could help create guidance for what an effective deforestation-free policy should contain and how it should be communicated at various parts of the supply chain, from community forests all the way to retailers.

Other ideas address metrics and documentation. Developing Key Performance Indicators to assess efficacy of deforestation-free policies would be useful. We also could explore how existing certification schemes could be revised to help producers meet the new commitments and encourage harmonization among deforestation–free standards and methodologies, such as linking to the multiple commodity work of the High Conservation Value Resource Network. Relatively new methodologies such as TFT’s High Carbon Stock and other emerging approaches and tools might be scaled to help more producers meet the commitments.

Policy is another piece of the puzzle. We can apply what we have learned from global efforts on REDD+ and illegal logging to deforestation-free policy implementation, and we can create systems to enable corporate and government decision makers to react quickly to field data being generated by Global Forest Watch and similar mechanisms. Others suggested enabling a platform for sharing of what is and isn’t working in various geographies where these policies are being implemented.

Putting ideas into action

TFD will quickly explore how these ideas converge with the goals of organizations such as the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 and Consumer Goods Forum. The objective is to help develop some of the highest priority tools and create field opportunities for engagement and learning among key stakeholders, including those who have been largely left out of the discussion.

The TFD has a long-standing track record of helping the most unlikely of partners converge on sticky forestry issues through trust-building, open discussion, and consensus-driven problem-solving. Their widely used "Guide to Investing in Locally Controlled Forestry" and "Beyond REDD: The role of Forests in Climate Change" (PDF) guides were created through a number of conversations in the field, a model that could prove useful to speed up progress on effective deforestation-free policy implementation. As summed up by Chris Knight, PwC’s Assistant Director of Sustainability and Climate Change, “Deforestation free is a crucial ambition and it will be challenging to deliver. There is much that can be learned from certification, legality and other multi-stakeholder processes. Businesses need to hear those points and act on them.”

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