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Supply Chain
New Tool to Help Companies Zero in on Sources of Palm Oil Deforestation

WRI’s RADD (Radar Alerts for Detecting Deforestation) will be deployed initially in Malaysia and Indonesia, which together make up about 90% of palm oil production globally. According to WRI, it will detect deforestation weeks faster than existing optical-based systems.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) has released a new, real-time deforestation monitoring and alert tool that, they hope, will empower companies to act more quickly on information about actors cutting or burning forests along their supply chains.

The tool, called RADD (Radar Alerts for Detecting Deforestation) is the result of a collaboration between 10 of the largest palm oil companies, WRI, Wageningen University and Satelligence — a Netherlands-based remote imaging company. It will be deployed initially in Malaysia and Indonesia, which together make up about 90 percent of palm oil production globally; and according to WRI, it will detect deforestation weeks faster than existing optical-based systems.

“By uniting users around a common set of information, we hope to better facilitate coordinated follow up actions, accountability; and ultimately, impact on the ground,” Anne Rosenbarger, Southeast Asia Commodities Manager in the Food, Forests and Water Program at WRI, told Sustainable Brands.

The timing shows the urgency and need for such a tool, as Southeast Asia is just emerging from another horrific fire season, worsened by this year’s El Nino event. While they got less media attention than the fires in the Amazon, tens of thousands of hectares burned; and haze spread as far as Thailand, meaning huge amounts of CO2 was emitted into the atmosphere, and hundreds of thousands were sickened by harmful haze.

Some fires took place on oil palm plantations, calling into question the deforestation commitments of companies. Two big challenges, though, are attributing whose land fires are burning on — and then acting quickly. One key development that makes RADD both more powerful and useful is the integration of radar technology. This matters because cloud cover is pervasive over tropical regions. Satellites cannot penetrate cloud cover and sometimes can be without data from high-risk regions for weeks.

“Through the use of radar waves, the new system can penetrate cloud cover to help detect forest clearance earlier than optical-based systems,” Rosenbarger said. “Many tropical forest areas are quite cloudy, so being able to see through the clouds will significantly improve how quickly users are alerted to deforestation.”

The companies who are part of the collaboration include commodities companies Bunge, Cargill and Sime Darby Plantation; palm oil companies Golden Agri-Resources, Musim Mas and and Wilmar International; and consumer goods companies Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever. Together, they represent a significant percentage of palm oil entering global commodity markets, meaning that this tool could, if used effectively, make a real difference on the ground.

“This pioneering initiative will support and boost our efforts in working towards full traceability to the plantation, as we will now be able to see the real-time picture from above while working with our suppliers on the ground towards responsible palm oil,” Dr. Gotz Martin, Head of Sustainability Implementation at Golden Agri-Resources, said in a press statement.

Of course, supply chains are complex; and sometimes, merely having information about labor or environmental abuses within them isn’t enough for companies to take action: PepsiCo and Nestlé took several years to finally cut a partnership with the Indonesian brand Indofood, despite the existence of several, well-documented reports and media stories about issues in their palm oil plantations.

That is why another aspect of RADD might be just as important as its purported speed and accuracy. All reports and alerts will be publicly available on WRI’s Global Forest Watch platform — meaning that civil society groups and community leaders can see which companies are taking action, and which ones are not.

“The RADD system will be made publicly available, so that a broad range of stakeholders, from companies, to government, to civil society can all have access to the same set of information,” Rosenbarger said.

We’ve known that deforestation is a problem in the palm oil sector for years. With RADD, companies have one less excuse to fail to act and ensure their supply chains are fully sustainable.