Published 2 years ago.
About a 5 minute read.
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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
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
it increases the risk of viruses such as COVID-19 spreading from animals to
Despite the importance of forests, many brands’ products are still associated
with deforestation — with crops, meat,
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
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.
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A recent UN
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
of the world’s biodiversity, making them crucial links in the efforts to protect
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
cattle, and other commodities. By taking a forest-positive approach, brands can
go beyond simply not buying commodities from those who carry out
to actively protecting what forests are standing.
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 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.
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
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
Protecting standing forests is also the most cost-effective and impactful way to
plant trees, according to Kew Botanical Gardens’ 10 Golden Rules for
While many brands support active tree-planting
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
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
Published Nov 26, 2021 7am EST / 4am PST / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
Charlotte Opal is Executive Director at Forest Conservation Fund and Strategy Adviser for the Earthworm Foundation (formerly Tropical Forest Trust).