Skip to main content

Here's how pressuring corporations can save the Amazon from destruction

Livestock in the Amazon rainforest

Meat is far and away the single largest driver of deforestation, with cattle and animal feed combining to drive more deforestation than all other commodities combined. Photo by marcio isensee on Shutterstock.

This article originally was published on Yale Environment 360.

The Amazon is on fire again. Deforestation rates are at their highest in 13 years. In June, the number of fires reported was up 20 percent over this time last year, when the burning of the Amazon dominated global headlines.

Caused largely by burning to clear land for the beef industry, this destruction is driving wildlife extinction, displacement of Indigenous communities and the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases. In the Amazon and globally, deforestation’s other major impact has come into stark relief: Clearing native ecosystems, and bringing humans into closer contact with wildlife, is the leading risk factor for diseases leaping from animals to humans and is likely linked to the current pandemic, just as it was connected to Ebola and AIDS before it. And the toxic haze produced by deforestation and associated fires makes people far more vulnerable to respiratory diseases such as the coronavirus.

As severe and sweeping in impact as the Amazon deforestation crisis is, it is also avoidable. Lessons from half a world away show us that it is possible to transform private industry and improve governance to dramatically reduce deforestation.

In Southeast Asia, the palm oil industry’s environmental notoriety is well-deserved. In just a few decades, it has burned and bulldozed more than 30,000 square miles of the region’s forests and replaced them with monoculture plantations in order to make cheap vegetable oil, soap and biofuels. In the oil-palm-growing heartland in Indonesia and Malaysia, you can fly in a jet several miles up in the air, look out your window and see nothing other than oil palms stretching to the horizon in what was once orangutan and tiger habitat. For many, this deforestation is a lot more than a statistic: It represents dozens of Indigenous communities dispossessed of their lands and their livelihoods.

However, despite important remaining challenges and risks, an analysis by nonprofit Chain Reaction Research shows that deforestation for palm oil has plummeted from a million acres per year to fewer than 250,000 acres in each of the past three years. While that is still way too much, it is a remarkable decline. In climate terms, it’s like wiping away the pollution from more than 80 coal-fired power plants. And many orangutans, tree kangaroos and other endangered animals are alive today because of this progress.

Deforestation for palm oil has plummeted from a million acres per year to fewer than 250,000 acres in each of the past three years. While that is still way too much, it is a remarkable decline.

Such progress is possible in large part because deforestation isn’t necessary to the growth of agriculture: There are more than a billion acres of previously deforested land around the world where it’s possible to expand agriculture without threatening native ecosystems. Indeed, most agricultural expansion already happens on these lands, and it’s just a minority of producers who expand through deforestation.

The palm oil industry has made substantial progress because its customers and financiers forced it to. Plantation companies need international customers and financiers to bankroll their operations. Facing intense NGO campaigns about their complicity in deforestation and human rights abuses, dozens of companies such as Unilever and Dunkin’ Donuts adopted policies that prohibited purchases from suppliers that engaged in deforestation for palm oil. That created the basis for action.

Monitoring by industry, government and NGOs such as ours is the major tool for enforcement. Every month, for instance, our organization, Mighty Earth, uses satellite monitoring and supply chain analysis to monitor palm oil concessions in Indonesia and parts of Malaysia for deforestation, then files public alerts with the major companies that purchase palm oil.

Typically, companies act within two to three weeks on the information, cutting off contracts or intervening with their suppliers to stop the deforestation. If they don’t, we share this information with their customers and financiers. Under this scrutiny, even the largest and most notorious palm oil companies know that deforestation and land-grabbing is incompatible with maintaining or expanding market access.

Deforestation-free production for palm oil has become widespread. While we’ve tracked a dozen or so companies deforesting more than 2,500 acres — bad actors include Malaysia’s Samling Group and Indonesia’s Mulia Sawit Agro Lestari (MSAL) Group — it’s a relative handful compared to the numbers a few years ago.

Ultimately, this progress, while very much incomplete, rests on the fact that customers and financiers send a clear signal: If you deforest for palm oil, you’re out. Companies know that few customers want to buy a bar of soap or bite into a cookie that’s linked to the destruction of an orangutan’s home or the theft of an Indigenous community’s land.

There are signs that these private sector changes, combined with domestic concern about deforestation and incentives from international donors, also have contributed in some cases to greater, albeit inconsistent, government action for forests. Companies that for years had lobbied and bribed their way to weaker enforcement of environmental rules started adopting stronger voluntary policies, and they suddenly had an incentive to make sure their competitors were subject to the same strong policies that they were.

As a result, in Indonesia, for example, the last few years have seen several pro-forest policy actions coming from the government: the strengthening of a 2011 moratorium on deforestation; the rewetting of hundreds of thousands of acres of carbon-rich peatland; and a freeze on licensing for new palm oil concessions. When forest fires broke out last year, President Joko Widodo’s administration moved quickly to shut down more than 60 concessions where fires burned and mobilized the military to help.

No matter the progress, we simply won’t get a handle on deforestation or climate change more broadly until the meat industry changes — or people eat drastically less meat.

The combination of private sector and government action contributed to a significant decline in deforestation in Indonesia, and in 2019 reached its lowest levels since 2003, according to data by Global Forest Watch. The picture is not entirely rosy, however. After indications that the Indonesian government may have been diverting funds from fire prevention and firefighting as part of its COVID-19 response, fire alerts from the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) laboratory at the University of Maryland and analysis by Greenpeace suggest that illegal deforestation in the country has spiked this year. The Indonesian parliament is also considering a so-called omnibus bill that would dismantle key environmental protections under the cover of COVID-19 recovery efforts. This legislation would, among other changes, eliminate mandatory environmental permits, remove legal options for affected communities to resist new projects on environmental grounds, and strip companies of legal liability for fires on their concession areas. An analysis by the Indonesian civil society nonprofit Madani found that the proposed legislation could remove legal protections for forests across many of Indonesia’s provinces. These discouraging developments highlight the persistent risk of backsliding, but do not mean that progress is impossible. Indeed, these challenges remind us of the need for continued vigilance and pressure.

Southeast Asia is just one example of this model’s potential. In Africa, under pressure from similar campaigns, deforestation in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire fell by half last year, in large part because the chocolate industry finally started enforcing its commitments to stop sourcing cocoa from national parks and protected areas. The tire and rubber industry has joined with civil society to commit to making similar progress where rubber is cultivated around the world, especially in Southeast Asia and Western Africa. Even in the Brazilian Amazon, the animal feed industry has stuck to a moratorium on deforestation for soy since 2006, and less than 1 percent of soy in the region is grown on newly deforested land, even as the industry itself has expanded dramatically.

But no matter the progress, we simply won’t get a handle on deforestation or climate change more broadly until the meat industry changes — or people eat drastically less meat. Meat is far and away the single largest driver of deforestation, with cattle and animal feed combining to drive more deforestation than all other commodities combined. The overwhelming majority of this deforestation is concentrated in South America. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s failure to enforce environmental protections has exacerbated the big meat companies’ negligence.

When it comes to meat, some of the same companies that have enforced policies to eliminate deforestation and human rights abuse for palm oil, paper and cocoa have refused to do so when it comes to the trillion-dollar meat business.

Big meat sellers such as Costco, Stop & Shop and France’s Groupe Casino have made commitments to act on deforestation. They have written polite letters, held earnest meetings and professed concern to meat suppliers. But gentle urging just isn’t enough to persuade giant meat companies to change.

Even after multiple exposés about their complicity in deforestation, fires and land grabbing, meat industry leaders Cargill and JBS blithely have dismissed the appeals of their customers for change and continued to buy from the very suppliers caught doing the burning. Last year, Ruth Kimmelshue, Cargill’s business operations and supply chain chief, told me that her company just didn’t think their customers were serious about environmental concerns because, for all their handwringing, they kept buying billions of dollars in products from Cargill despite its record.

If more companies bring commercial consequences to their suppliers, the avoidable crisis of a burning Amazon could become a thing of the past.

For instance, McDonald’s has promised to act on deforestation, but remains one of Cargill’s biggest customers. Indeed, McDonald’s acts essentially as a Cargill storefront. Cargill not only provides chicken and beef to the fast food behemoth, the company actually also prepares and freezes the burgers and McNuggets, then ships them to McDonald’s, which just reheats and serves them. The supermarket chain Ahold Delhaize — owner of Stop & Shop, Food Lion, Giant, Hannaford and other brands — also expressed its desire to act on deforestation. Nevertheless, it launched a $100 million joint venture with Cargill in 2018 to operate a new 200,000-square-foot meat packaging plant in Rhode Island to supply Ahold Delhaize’s U.S. stores; the chain also buys hundreds of millions of dollars of meat from JBS, one of the largest corporate drivers of deforestation in Brazil.

But this willful blindness may be starting to change: In December, Nestlé announced it would cease buying soybeans from Cargill Brazil, although Nestlé was seemingly was willing to continue doing business with Cargill more broadly. And this summer, Grieg Seafood explicitly excluded Cargill from a $105 million green bond over concerns about the company’s deforestation. If more companies bring commercial consequences to their suppliers, the avoidable crisis of a burning Amazon could become a thing of the past. As experience in other industries shows, agribusiness simply can’t afford to deforest if their customers don’t let them.

It has been a year since the burning of the Amazon made global headlines, and big brands have said they are committed to eliminating deforestation for at least a decade. But they’ve confined themselves to polite expressions of concern instead of effective action, and we know the deforesters will continue with business as usual as long as their usual business remains lucrative.

To end the destruction, then, we must make destruction unprofitable. As with palm oil, the deforesters’ weak point is their customers — supermarkets and suppliers with a purported commitment to sustainability and reputations to maintain with their customers. The average shopper is unlikely to have heard of Cargill, but they make choices about which grocery store to shop at. Stores such as Costco or the Ahold Delhaize brands rely on the trust of their customers and do not want to associate their names with the destruction of the Amazon. So either out of a sincere dedication or because of the increasing pressure from NGOs and their own customers, they must drop the gentle urging and start canceling contracts. When these businesses shift, we will have taken yet another step toward a broader industry transformation.

More on this topic

More by This Author