Late last year, devastating fires engulfed 2 million hectares of land in Indonesia, impacting the health of 43 million people around Southeast Asia, and emitting as much greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as Brazil does in a year. They were driven by years of rampant, unregulated deforestation, chiefly for the expansion of paper pulp and oil palm plantations. This is a global issue, because these contentious ingredients went on to be used in thousands of products produced by global brands.
“Palm oil is produced somewhere locally but is traded around the world because of market demand,” Annisa Rahmawati, Forests Campaigner at Greenpeace Southeast Asia, told Sustainable Brands. “This is the way that deforestation is exported to store shelves and kitchen tables around the world.”
Through global supply chains, we are all connected to Indonesia's fires and to the deforestation that led to them. Right now, few, if any, are being held accountable for last year's fires, despite their massive costs, estimated by the Indonesian Government to be upwards of $30 billion. But what can we do? It’s easy to say we need to stop deforestation, but this is nearly impossible without adequate information.
We don't fully understand who started the fires, or on whose land they burned. Research by Dr. Herry Purmono at the Bogor, Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research found that while fires could be found on all land designations (logging concessions, wood plantations, industrial plantations, oil palm, in community land, and even in protected areas) the challenge is understanding this in more detail - specifically, on which companies’ land fires burned, who was buying from smallholders, or whether illegal plantings led to fires. Understanding this would help paint a much clearer picture about the disaster, and how it connects to products we buy around the world every day.
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One thing is clear, though. The palm oil and paper pulp booms in Indonesia have been driven by corporate demand; these multinational companies now play a crucial role in helping understand their causes, and in preventing them in the future.
According to Rahmawati, that is not yet happening.
“If looking at the palm oil and paper pulp sectors at large, it is evident they are not doing enough,” she said.
So after years of pushing for the Indonesian Government to release maps of concessions, Greenpeace took it upon itself to establish a model for greater transparency, working with progressive companies, collecting data, and putting it all together online.
The tool, called Kepo Hutan — which, in Indonesian means ‘Curious About Forests’ — is an open-source, web-based map platform that presents mapping data from diverse sources.
“This tool enables local communities, civil society and all other stakeholders to monitor and prevent fires,” Rahmawati said. “No other interactive online map platform provides the same extent of land tenure and concessions data that Kepo Hutan does.”
Though impressive, imagine if more companies would engage with Kepo Hutan, providing information and creating better industry wide standards. “[This] is the kind of tool that companies should use and further develop,” she added. “With this sort of transparency, the industry can set a level playing field and ensure there is a strong, clear business incentive to grow palm oil without destroying rainforests.”
One of the leaders in transparency is Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), which, in 2014 shared its suppliers’ mapping data with both the Indonesian Government and independent organizations such as the World Resources Institute. And earlier this month, APP announced it had activated its Situation Room at its head office in Jakarta to strengthen its efforts in the prevention and mitigation of land and forest fires — its IT team has developed a system that combines information from multiple sources to accurately map the emergence of hotspots in near real-time.
“Modern communications and monitoring techniques have shrunk our world; our consumers across the globe can monitor our actions via satellite and will not tolerate companies that damage the environment,” Ian Lifshitz, sustainability director for the Americas for APP, told SB. “A company that tries to hide its activities will lose its consumers’ trust, which is vital for an often misunderstood operation like ours.”
This shows that preventing fires, while not easy, is definitely possible. Palm oil and paper pulp are multibillion-dollar industries, and a true solution to the fire problem necessitates a strong push for sustainable, fully transparent supply chains. Companies such as APP may be at the forefront, but we also need all their competitors to be more transparent about their operations. Also important is the role of downstream companies, using Indonesian palm oil or paper pulp to produce goods around the world.
“Consumer companies need to demand the traders and producers they buy palm oil from take on a ‘new normal,’ where new deforestation is simply not allowed in the industry,” Rahmawati asserted, adding that they must also ensure that this can be independently verified and monitored, potentially through tools such as Kepo Hutan.
Moreover, we need to hold companies that refuse to be transparent accountable, and ensure that any transparency extends beyond good PR and ineffective zero-deforestation pledges.
“Complete transparency is necessary to ensure that every stakeholder feels it is being treated fairly,” Lifshitz said. “And as much as consumers and stakeholders, transparency helps APP strive to be a better company; we can only improve by being honest about our flaws.”
Tools such as Kepo Hutan are a start, but only with the engagement of more companies from all ends of the palm oil and paper pulp supply chains can we ensure that last year's tragedy never happens again.