Sourcing products from sustainable production areas and offering farmers better loans for environmentally friendly practices are just two ways to support sustainable development – ultimately benefiting millions of farmers and significantly reducing deforestation
Each year, Global Forest Watch (GFW) releases an analysis of the tree cover that has been lost over the previous 12 months. The most recent figures suggest that 2018 was a good year, with deforestation showing a second consecutive dip. But look a bit deeper, and the 3.6m hectares that were cleared actually made it the third worst year since records began in 2002.
“We are nowhere near winning this battle,” Frances Seymour from the World Resources Institute, part of the GFW network, announced earlier this year. “The world’s forests are now in the emergency room – it is death by a thousand cuts.”
Across the world there are dozens of political, civil, agricultural and corporate initiatives aimed at combating deforestation, with pledges covering tropical commodities such as palm oil, soy, timber and cocoa, and many working towards targets set for 2020. Yet, says Daan Wensing, programme director at the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH): “Forest loss is continuing at an alarming rate, and farmers need more and better support. Commitments matter, but stopping global deforestation and increasing sustainable development will take more than just words – we need to turn pledges into action.”
IDH is at the forefront of bringing together corporations, producers, governments and civil society to help develop the ideas needed to protect forests, as well guaranteeing sustainable supply and ensuring local people make a good living from the land.
But, rather than dwelling on the past, IDH has instead set out the role key players can have in making farming more sustainable and helping ensure that goods on our shelves aren’t contributing to this environmental emergency.
There have, of course, been partial successes, says Wensing, such as the soy moratorium, which has seen deforestation rates plummet, while production of soy has increased on existing farmland. Governments have also shown they can make a difference, often by actively encouraging sustainable sourcing. In Norway, for instance, 80% of soy is now deforestation-free (against a 100% commitment), while the Netherlands is working towards a similar commitmentaround tropical timber, soy and palm that’s backed by sector-wide commitments.
This blanket approach means that forward-looking companies, producers, governments and NGOs are no longer trying to improve the world all by themselves and covering all the costs, Wensing says: “Mainstream companies now have no option but to follow suit.”
Another successful project is the Cocoa & Forests Initiative, a public-private partnership that brings together 31 companies, including Mondelēz and Cargill, with the governments of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, and bodies such as the World Cocoa Foundation and IDH. The initiative is looking beyond the cocoa supply chain to the wider forest landscape, with support for farmer livelihoods and community engagement, alongside cocoa agroforestry.
While transparency in supply chains and greater efforts to prevent sourcing products from illegally deforested areas are to be encouraged, he continues, important new ideas are also gaining traction.
Brazil’s Cerrado is a huge, biodiverse savannah, and one of the world’s largest soy-producing areas. To help protect it, international businesses are coming together to fund incentives that encourage farmers not to clear more land, and to instead invest in cleared areas to improve production. Legally, they can farm on up to 80% of their holdings, and not doing so hits their income.
It’s a project that Wensing says is long overdue: “In many countries we ask farmers to go beyond the law, and it will cost them to do so, but they need compensating for this – their costs need covering.
“If we really want to succeed with our targets, it’s going to cost money, and it shouldn’t be the smallholder that foots the bill.”
IDH is behind new ways of making sustainable sourcing easier for companies, such as creating Verified Sourcing Areas, where farmers working in deforestation hotspots offer companies a guaranteed supply of sustainably produced commodities. These Verified Sourcing Areas help cut the costs of verifying products on a farm-by-farm basis, says Wensing, with the farmers rewarded with better contracts and greater access to markets. For companies it guarantees their product is sustainably produced. For governments, it enables them to take a leading role on sustainable land-use, as the approach covers all sectors and land-types.
Issues around land rights also need strong attention. In many countries there is often confusion about who owns the land, yet land titles are needed as collateral for loans. Without them, smallholders have little access to finance or loans, which means they can’t afford inputs such as fertilisers to improve yields. Instead, they carve out a bit more of the forest as a way of making ends meet.
To tackle this, Wensing believes the financial sector needs to become more proactive, by offering, for example, better interest rates or “green” loans to farmers who commit to sustainable practices. There is an important role for technology too, from big data and blockchain that can help improve accountability, to phone apps that support farmers with information about markets, weather reports and farming tutorials – all of which can help improve yields without the need to clear more land.
Consumers also have a role to play, and there’s a growing demand for brands with a purpose, says Wensing. People need to demand more of companies, he says, not by pushing companies to ban products linked to deforestation but by demanding products and ingredients from sustainable sources. By making sustainability mainstream, the business case goes beyond purely reputational issues.
“The more we do so, the more brands without a purpose will start to feel the pressure to shift their sourcing to sustainability,” he says.
For all this to happen, more stakeholders need to get involved and come forward to try new approaches and ideas. “Companies fear that if they move ahead but get things wrong then the press and social media will come down on them,” he explains. “But time is running out. We need to create a safe space for all of us to get on with it.”