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Natural Resources:
Brands Partnering with Indigenous Communities on Forest Conservation

Consumer goods brands and retailers aiming to diminish their climate impacts or even become forest positive can find cost-effective solutions to protect forests when they partner with indigenous communities on the ground.

In the industrialized world, we have never been so disconnected from the land where we source our commodities, so it is more critical than ever for food companies to engage with their suppliers to tackle the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. Food production alone is responsible for a third of our greenhouse gas emissions — with a quarter of these emissions coming from agriculture and land use change, especially deforestation.

The OECD estimates that the ecosystem services that forests create are worth more than $125 trillion per year — they stabilize the climate; store carbon; provide food, wood and medicine; clean our air and water; and prevent soil erosion, floods and landslides — so, there is urgent need to act. Forests, of course, also maintain habitat for wildlife, which has become more relevant than ever: When such habitat is lost, it increases the risk of viruses such as COVID-19 spreading from animals to humans.

Despite the importance of forests, many brands’ products are still associated with deforestation — with crops, meat, textiles, furniture and more all produced at the expense of forests. Over the last decade, this has led to an increasing number of businesses committing to policies that aim to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. But many brands still stand accused of not doing enough.

Fortunately, partnerships with indigenous communities offer brands a cost-effective method of keeping forests standing, protecting biodiversity, and reducing carbon emissions — all while strengthening human rights.

The role of indigenous communities

A recent UN report revealed that indigenous communities are often the best protectors of forests, able to draw on generations of ancestral experience and knowledge of a given forest landscape to maintain forest health and live in balance with nature.

Forest protection by indigenous people across Brazil, Bolivia and Colombia has prevented as much as 60 million metric tons of carbon emissions every year between 2000 and 2012. To put that into context, that is the equivalent of taking more than 9 million cars off the road for that time. Indigenous people’s lands include 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, making them crucial links in the efforts to protect nature.

Brands can harness the skills of indigenous communities to help them achieve their climate change and biodiversity goals. Indigenous communities are present in a third of all forests — many of which are on the frontiers of development for cocoa, palm oil, cattle, and other commodities. By taking a forest-positive approach, brands can go beyond simply not buying commodities from those who carry out deforestation, to actively protecting what forests are standing.

A win-win solution

British supermarket Waitrose is an example of how such an approach works in practice. Like most brands, they don’t have a field team presence on the ground in the forest landscapes from which they source commodities such as palm oil.

Waitrose have therefore chosen to partner with the indigenous Mului community to protect a tropical forest area in Borneo, which is the equivalent in size to land they need to grow palm oil for use in their own-brand (private-label) products. Together, a local civil society organisation along with the community will protect the forest and monitor its wildlife, while also investing in further improvements to the livelihoods of the community.

This forest protection comes at a cost of just US$40 per hectare per year for Waitrose — about 1 to 2 percent of the export price of palm oil. This amount also covers the cost of quarterly satellite monitoring of forest cover, to make sure no farms are being established inside the Mului people’s forest.

The importance of land rights

The Mului have a history of keeping their forest land safe from loggers and agricultural expansion. An important factor in the success of this project is that this local community has been recognized by the Indonesian government as an indigenous group and have gone through a legal process to have their rights to manage their forests recognised.

The UN report highlighted how securing land rights for tribal and indigenous communities is a vital step in enabling indigenous people to become forest stewards. The government might not always recognise that they own land; so, businesses can help before any development begins by engaging with communities and establishing and mapping where their customary land is, and working with local groups to help these communities gain legal recognition.

Conservation and certification

Traditionally, many brands have relied on certification schemes to help them buy commodities not associated with the clearance of tropical forests. But it is important to recognize that there is little forest within such certified areas: they are effectively farms. So, while such schemes can help companies deliver on their promise to supply deforestation-free products, they alone do not prevent deforestation happening elsewhere for other companies. Only by actively protecting forests can brands truly become not just deforestation-free, but forest positive.

Protecting standing forests is also the most cost-effective and impactful way to plant trees, according to Kew Botanical Gardens10 Golden Rules for Restoring Forests. While many brands support active tree-planting efforts, it can take hundreds of years for a planted forest to regain the carbon and biodiversity stored in natural forest that is already standing. That is not to be critical of tree-planting, as it does play a role in forest regeneration — but it’s important to understand where it lies in terms of forest-conservation priorities.

Ultimately, forest conservation and carbon reduction is about people — we will never achieve our climate and biodiversity goals without involving people in conservation. There must be more private-sector investment into supporting indigenous people to be forest protectors. Not only is it cost effective; it’s a simple way for brands to communicate to customers about their actions in forest conservation and carbon reduction, while moving us towards a forest-positive future.