Monitoring deforestation has moved from the ground to the sky and now down the supply chain

The below article originally appeared as a Subscriber-only feature in our August 2015 issue. It has now been re-published as free to access.

“There have been huge advances in forest monitoring,” says Rod Taylor, director, forests, at WWF International and interim head of the WWF-led Global Forest & Trade Network (GFTN). “With drones, it is harder to get away with doing bad things.”

Among the advances is global forest monitoring network Global Forest Watch’s ability to monitor deforestation almost in real time and display it on an interactive map, bringing the issue to people worldwide. Launched in February 2014, GFW aims to provide accurate and up-to-date information about forest change to anyone with access to a computer and internet connection. GFW’s forest change data includes annual tree cover loss data from the University of Maryland and Google as well as forest change alert systems.

“We want people to use the data available on Global Forest Watch to get a better understanding of how and why our forests are changing, and ultimately improve management and conservation efforts,” says GFW spokeswoman Octavia Payne.

Started by the World Resources Institute and its partners, GFW relies on state-of-the-art technology and in-country partnerships. For certain countries, WRI has published forest atlases to help decision makers manage forest resources sustainably through strengthened land-use planning and monitoring. WRI’s Forest and Landscapes in Indonesia project supports “government and civil society actions for effective and equitable land use in that country”.

Company transparency aids forest monitoring

“There is a lot of new satellite information coming out, and with the amount of data and quality of data coming out, we can understand what is happening much better,” says Michael Wolosin, a managing director of Climate Advisers. “We can see several large-scale patterns.”

“We can see enough of the forest enough of the time to understand the big trends,” Wolosin says. “It’s easy to tell if trees are gone or if trees were harvested too quickly or if forests are healthy. We need to link up the monitoring of forests to economic and government bodies and achieve more transparency – find out about land control, who owns the property, monitor products of deforestation and the flow of products in development. It’s not easy to find out if companies are good or bad or where their wood comes from.”

NGOs and community-based organisations are finding success monitoring deforestation, says Jeff Conant, international forest campaigner for Friends of the Earth US, but evaluating and addressing some of the consequences of deforestation demands more hands-on work. “One of the biggest challenges is monitoring the social challenges around deforestation and that requires boots on the ground and understanding the social context,” he says.

Various programmes and groups are addressing those issues, including ensuring that the rights of indigenous people who depend on forests are protected and using education and incentives to encourage companies to practise responsible forest management. Now there are programmes to certify that trees are farmed sustainably and technology to test wood to determine its source.

Protecting indigenous people requires hands-on work

Certifying sustainability

IDH, a group that facilitates sustainable trade, certifies products in the supply chain from the source to the consumer. Hans Stout, IDH’s tropical timber programme director, says: “For timber, this is from the forest or concession owners until the demand side.” IDM helps fund programmes for certification of sustainable forest management (SFM) in countries including Indonesia, Surinam, Guyana, Peru and regions of Africa.

IDH also has established and supports the Sustainable Tropical Timber Coalition, which brings together companies and government officials to increase the demand for SFM tropical timber.

The WWF-led GFTN connects more than 300 companies from the logging and paper industries, communities, NGOs and entrepreneurs from more than 30 countries worldwide as part of an effort to create a new market for environmentally responsible forest products. As part of that effort, forests are independently certified, to guarantee that they are well managed and that their products come from legal and sustainable timber harvests. The GFTN provides technical assistance during the certification process and seeks out marketing opportunities.

“There’s a lot to be said for wood,” says GFTN’s Taylor. “It tends to have a lower carbon footprint, it’s renewable and an environmentally sound product.”

In developing countries with logging and paper industries, it’s not always easy for a company to demonstrate that it is doing the right thing, according to Taylor. “We use forest certification and support logging companies moving toward best practices.” The main tool, certification, has been used primarily in developing countries. GFTN has a group of companies, including retailers and paper manufacturers, that are trying to source their raw materials responsibly, aided by laws in the US and Europe, which bar the importation of timber that is illegally sourced. “We offer support to clean up the supply chain.”

US and Europe bar illegally sourced timber imports

Managing mangroves

Two WWF Global Forest & Trade Network (GFTN) participants recently earned Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for 28,220 hectares of mangrove forests in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

The two companies, Kandelia Alam and Bina Ovivipari Semesta, manage mangrove forest concessions. This is the first group certification at the concession level in Indonesia.

“FSC certification ensures that the mangrove and swamp forests are managed according to best management practices, and there is a strong onus on the companies to protect and conserve the mangrove’s ecosystems," says Joko Sarjito, GFTN Indonesia manager.

These forest management units are home to the endangered proboscis monkey, as well as fresh water and Irrawaddy dolphins. Mangroves are also critical to fighting climate change, because mangroves absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

In industries that rely on sourcing from complex supply chains that lack transparency, and where there is little customer demand for certified product and limited awareness of the requirements of chain of custody, the challenge of moving to sourcing FSC certified timber products is considerable, according to Fiona Wheatley, sustainable development manager for Marks&Spencer, one of the UK’s leading retail stores. “M&S has worked hard over the last decade to deal with these challenges and we are proud that last year 98% of our wood materials met the M&S Wood Policy. “

M&S joined the GFTN 11 years ago. “We wanted to send a clear message that protecting the world’s forests is a business issue, and that M&S recognised the value of forests, not only in terms of supplying us with wood products, but also for their wider role in protecting biodiversity, mitigating climate change and for the many community benefits they bring,” Wheatley says. Company officials also gained the opportunity to learn about forests, plantations and their sustainable management from experts who work in forest regions, particularly those regions most threatened by illegal logging or unsustainable forestry practices. “GFTN’s global network provided this resource and continues to keep us updated on the changing landscape of forest conservation,” Wheatley added.

GFTN keeps companies updated on forest conservation

As part of the M&S sustainable business programme, Plan A, the company has made the commitment that all wood will come from the most sustainable sources, including FSC certified or recycled by 2020, she said. Currently, more than 70% of the wood M&S uses is FSC certified, “which we consider to be a leading coverage given the breadth of scope of our wood commitment.”

Ensuring that goal is met requires a lot of investigation. “We have to map, risk assess and actively manage our procurement year on year,” Wheatley continued. “We also have to annually report our procurement status against GFTN-specified categories and demonstrate year on year improvement. Our annual submissions are audited on an ad-hoc basis by GFTN which gives us trust that the data we submit is accurate and credible.”

The company requires all business use of timber to report on the volume of wood used, its certification status and its source and supply chain, she adds. M&S recruits an expert third-party company to assess the status of all its wood sources, and all business unit owners are required to work with their suppliers to improve sources that do not meet company policy. “As this includes wood used within construction and store refit, food and non-food packaging, marketing, consumables and products for resale, this is a considerable challenge.”

Rising interest among consumers in deforestation-free products also will present new opportunities for manufacturers, Taylor notes. “Driven by pressure from their customers and investors, major forestry and plantation companies have committed to end their role in deforestation, but turning their commitments into reality will take an enormous amount of hard work, especially dealing with the legacy of forest degradation, deforestation and community conflicts that remain within their operations,” says Patrick Anderson, policy advisor for the Forest Peoples Programme. The FPP works with more than a dozen Indonesian non-government groups to help forest peoples facing threats from the palm oil and pulp and paper industries.

FPP helps forest peoples facing threats from industry

Over the past few years a “revolution” in voluntary efforts to reduce deforestation has started, according to Wolosin, which he thinks will lead to changes in how forests are treated. “Many companies looking at their climate footprint will have to look at [deforestation],” he says. “For companies that rely on agricultural products, the ability to grow and sell products to the world relies on healthy forests.”

“Business often complains that customers do not ask for certified sustainable wood products,” noted Wheatley. “At M&S, we believe that our customers expect us to source in a manner that enhances and protects the natural world and communities. We don’t need to ask them if this is the right thing to do because they rely on us to be the experts. We invest in responsible sourcing because we understand the value of trust in our brand and know this makes our business more resilient.”

Besides its state-of-the-art monitoring system, Global Forest Watch also works to reduce deforestation in commodities, targeting business users involved with production or purchasing,“in the downstream supply chain”, according to Sarah Lake, a research analyst on GFW’s commodities team. The first programme involved educating businesses on the effects of palm oil on deforestation. Palm oil plantations have been cited as the main cause of deforestation in rainforests, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Businesses are encouraged to buy palm oil produced in responsibly-managed forests. “We showed the impact of palm oil on the ecosystem and talked about what areas can be improved and encourage companies to get credit where credit is due,” Lake says.

The tracing burden

Often companies don’t know where they are getting their products from, so it is important for them to trace the product to the source of production, which can be a significant commitment, Lake says. If they find that the products were not from responsibly-managed forests, it is important not to stop using the producer, Lake stresses. “The idea is to help them improve their practices,” she explains. “Try to understand some of issues around production. The business will be making a very sound long-term investment in establishing a long-term relationship and will have good close relationships with the producer.”

GFW also encourages palm oil farmers to find alternatives to clear-cutting land for palm tree growth, including using existing open land. Lake says: “It’s most important that rich forest areas not be cleared; the forests are home to many species that would be without habitats.” Farmers can use degraded land, which is vacant land that may have been used for agriculture in the past.

“In Indonesia, we have mapped areas that are not forests, but are available for agriculture,” says Lake. “Open land is much better for palm oil production. The palm trees do require some good practices, but don’t require specific soil quality.”

Palm oil farmers are encouraged to utilise existing open land

Frequently lost in the negotiations for forest use are the local people, many of whom are dependent on forests for their livelihoods and homes. To make sure that local communities are properly informed before any projects go ahead, companies are urged to follow the principle of free, prior informed consent (FPIC), long encouraged by the FPP and now, according to FPP, a “principle of international law and jurisprudence related to indigenous peoples”. This requires that any company planning an operation that will affect indigenous people to let them know ahead of time about the project and give them input. “It’s not sufficient for a company to come in and tell people what they are going to do,” says Conant. “They have to hire an independent counsel to let them know about the project and potential consequences. A lot of energy has been expended to develop clear policies to address the problem.”

Companies that don’t follow the policy, though, face few real consequences. “Almost no companies have gotten FPIC right,” says Conant. “It’s very common in developing countries, and to the government’s benefit, to ignore regulations.” Often there are social and financial implications for companies that disregard laws and they could face resistance from the local people. “There is some reputational risk,” Conant says. “But they need to do the right thing.”

People who drive cars while intoxicated can lose their licences, but if a multi-national company destroys precious land that is an orangutan habitat, mostly what they get is bad publicity, notes Conant. “Companies should lose their licence to operate.”

At the heart of these multiple initiatives is the need to keep forest land from shrinking any further and change the mindset that trees are unlimited and disposable. “Our ultimate goal is that no bad guys are left in the global timber and paper trades, that all products are coming from well-managed forests,” Taylor says. “On the social side, we want to make sure that local companies and people are not getting a bad deal.”

deforestation  supply chain  forests  rainforest  WWF  WRI  GFW  Indigenous People 

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