The No Deforestation Blame Game

The No Deforestation Blame Game

As Tesso Nilo National Park burns, is hacked and destroyed, no one points a finger of blame at WWF, the Park Manager. We absolve them; stopping the carnage is, we rightly acknowledge, a big, complex, wicked problem beyond anything WWF can do alone. When deforestation happens in a company concession, we blame, smear and malign company managers and the morals and commitments of their customers who have pledged to stop deforestation. This disconnect represents a developmental immaturity that totally undermines efforts to save the forests, people and biodiversity we so worry about. We’ll only make progress in conservation when we transcend this immaturity and start working together.

Back in early June, keen blogger and sustainability commentator Toby Webb posed an intriguing question. Toby asked, "have we reached one of those famous 'tipping points' that we all love to write about and talk about?" He was referring to Asia Pacific Resources International Limited's (APRIL) announcement in Jakarta that it had completely eliminated deforestation under its new sustainable forest management policy. It was good news indeed but at the time, my answer to Toby's question was "sadly, not yet". I was reminded of Toby's question - and my sadness - this morning when I read Philip Jacobson’s latest article on Mongabay: "Not just any Wilmar suppliers caught violating no deforestation policy". The article cites a report from Indonesian NGO Greenomics that found deforestation in a Wilmar supplier's concession area. As the title notes, it's not just any supplier but one owned by the Ganda group which has familial links to one of Wilmar's Founders.

The contention that deforestation has occurred is based on satellite analysis by Greenomics. Asked for comment, no one from Wilmar or the Ganda group denied the deforestation - indeed they agreed that it was real - but they pointed out that it wasn't them that had felled the trees. Rather, they said, it was encroachment by communities.

Back in October 2014, I flew over the devastation that is Tesso Nilo National Park. The Park is just about gone; community encroachment has done for it. What was once a pristine paradise full of elephants, tigers and other critically endangered species, my heart dissolved when I saw instead only burned grassland where forest giants once reigned. Interspersed with recently planted palm oil and rubber trees, there was still some forest remaining but not much and the felling was forging ahead. One year on and much of the little that remained has gone; a dark tragedy for humanity and our relationship with the natural world.

Toby had asked his question based on a discussion with Greenpeace UK's John Sauven. Greenpeace's campaign against APRIL was founded on their contention that the company was Indonesia's biggest forest destroyer. Thus, as Toby surmised, with their new commitment to no deforestation following commitments from other companies in the past few years, had we indeed reached that magical tipping point?

My sadness at Toby's question stemmed from the fact that while APRIL's announcement was good news, it was far from any tipping point. That's because despite what Greenpeace said in their campaign about APRIL, they were never Indonesia's worst forest destroyer. NGO market campaigns need a villain and while it was APRIL's turn, Greenpeace's contention about the company's forest destroyer credentials ignored the fact that across the whole country, communities, some with rights, many without, are encroaching on forest areas in vast numbers, at a scale that is unprecedented and which so far has proven to be beyond any company's, NGOs’ or any level of Government's ability to stop; it's a very wicked problem.

Coming back to Jacobson’s article, I was disappointed that a good piece of analysis by Greenomics that could have been used to probe the complexities of this wicked problem, this elephant in the room, and explore opportunities to solve it, was instead used to broadcast the same old tired approach of innuendo against companies. Any analysis of what’s happened at Tesso Nilo has never stooped to such lows.

Wilmar is a TFT member so do call me out for conflict of interest with my comments here. Conflict of interest or otherwise, TFT people spend every day grappling with deforestation so we see the reality on the ground. It’s clear to me that unless we deal with the developmental immaturity of such blame games and instead start cooperating, we’re not going to save any forests. We’re never going to deal with the elephant in the room that is community encroachment. We’ll continue to take the easy route of blaming others, easy targets, like companies who we all know are evil, right? Isn’t it beyond time that we moved beyond tired rhetoric of who is good, who is evil and instead imagine that companies are just as important parts of a solution ecosystem as others?

If companies, NGOs, governments or anyone do the wrong thing, they should of course be called out and I thank the brave activists and journalists who put their lives – often paying the ultimate price - and careers at risk to do so. In this case, I was troubled that Jacobson didn't go further to find out what was actually happening on the ground. He lapsed, as many of us do, into the familiar terrain of assuming that the companies did the felling. It’s this developmental immaturity that we need to transcend. Jacobson’s blaming the company was in fact based on a very wrong stretching of the capacity of satellite data to reveal the truth. He didn’t go to the bush.

TFT has conducted many High Carbon Stock assessments in Indonesia and elsewhere. We use high-resolution satellite data to stratify forests into six distinct ecological strata. That done, we produce a map of the strata and if the work could end there, that would be great as we could quickly cover most of the country, share the resultant forest maps with the government, communities, NGOs and companies and efforts could forge ahead to protect what remains. Terrific. Unfortunately, the work doesn't end there. We've found - as has always been the case with any remotely sense data, be it satellite, aerial photo, whatever - that you still need to get out in the field and do 'ground truthing'. Home gardens and rubber plantations can look like forests even on high-resolution satellite data. To differentiate, you've got to physically visit the areas to work out the 'truth', hence the term 'ground truthing'. There are other anomalies and the experts know that the satellite data analysis only takes you so far.

We've also gone out into the field when NGOs have raised concerns around deforestation in other TFT members' operations. Visiting the areas alongside NGOs, we've together learned that while deforestation has occurred, it is not always a case of the company breaching its policy. Companies lacking no deforestation policies but with concessions overlapping our members' areas have cleared forest and whilst that has appeared as deforestation on satellite images, ground truthing has revealed these bigger, more complex issue of overlapping concessions, community encroachment and problems with enforcement.

In the case reported by Jacobson, Greenomics satellite imagery has revealed deforestation and the companies involved have confirmed it's happened; this is no case of rubber plantations being mistaken for forests. But, and here's my irritation, neither Jacobson, nor Greenomics, have been out into the field to ground truth what is actually happening. The company says it's community encroachment. The article writes that off, implying the company has been 'caught'; guilty as charged. Greenomics says that it looks like company clearing because it's next to company infrastructure. Really? Communities encroach against the law right into pristine National Parks. Why wouldn't they establish their own palm oil plantations next to a company canal? Practically, it's a wise thing to do – and let’s not assume communities are stupid, another failing many of us commit - so that you can use the infrastructure to transport the crop when the oil palms bear fruit. The article goes further and brings in a satellite image/GIS analyst from World Resources Institute (WRI). WRI of course has done great work with its Global Forest Watch system, so its experts have credibility, no denying it. WRI's analyst says “it looks like [it’s] commercial since [it’s] directly next to the areas that are cleared.” Again, really?

The article concludes, without anyone having stepped away from behind a computer screen - judge, jury and executioner - that this clearing is indeed done by the company and thus it violates Wilmar's no deforestation policy. It goes further to cast doubt on the true commitments of all signatories of the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP). There is no hope it seems. We can, with a single stroke, right off everything any company has done. Why?

Satellite technology is great and as it's become cheaper and more available in real time, it's become a great tool in the fight against deforestation. That's excellent. But like any technology, it has its limits and if we forget those, we run the risk of not only stretching the truth, but of destabilising efforts to protect what remains of our forest heritage. Satellites can’t spot forced or slave labour. They can’t spot social conflict and they can’t as yet, tell you who cut down the trees. For that we need our eyes and ears, boots on the ground.

What might Jacobsen have done instead? Perhaps he could have gotten on a plane, hopped in a 4 wheel drive and gone out, boots on the ground, to do some ground truthing. It would have been good to have taken an NGO with him, one who hasn't already pre-concluded what is happening out there. Yes, it's perfectly possible that Ganda has encouraged the communities to clear, saying "it wasn't me!" when asked, with the full intention of buying the fruits in four years time when the palms bear fruit. That happens. But go and speak to the communities and see if you can work out whether that's the case. Perhaps the communities are well prepared for such an interview and would lie? Perhaps! But perhaps you might find them to be very honest and clear; they’re good people too. Perhaps they're clearing the land because they have a grievance against the company? This does happen, right? Bottom line, it's way too complex to work out from a satellite image.

By casting Wilmar and its supplier in such a dim light, we assume – it’s the truth we like to tell ourselves – that all this no deforestation stuff is just greenwashing and the companies are and always have been evil demons intent on enriching themselves and their families at the environment’s and people’s expense. Sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy to me.

The work we're doing with Wilmar and others in the palm oil, pulp and paper, wood and other sectors may yet fail. But before we stretch the ability of satellite data way beyond any reasonable limits of veracity and application, shouldn't we, don't we have a big responsibility to get out there in the field and actually work out what the hell is going on?

Might it not indeed be communities? Anyone who has spent any time in the field in Indonesia looking at this encroachment knows very well that it happens everywhere and without boundary. Yet the contention is that the companies are wrong, they’re evil. There is absolutely zero trust in the article, judgment has already been passed. No wonder companies traditionally respond with "no comment" to journalists' questions, that stifling of openness and transparency another casualty of our immature approach to problem solving. Blame first, ask questions to confirm your conclusion later.

I come back to what I've said so strongly in my recent book "Beyond Certification". My contention is that people are fundamentally good until proven otherwise. Some might argue that both Wilmar and Ganda group, through past actions, have long since lost any claim to be good. I disagree. Regardless of anyone's past, regardless of what motivated their actions, I still believe that people should be trusted to do the right thing once they've understood a new path and have committed to it, as Wilmar has and as they've conveyed to not only Ganda group, but all of their other suppliers. Unfortunately Jacobsen's article starts off casting doubt on any hope of change or transformation with his despairing opening that "Yet other Wilmar suppliers are alleged to have cleared rainforest in violation of the palm oil giant’s sustainability policy"; the "yet other" suggesting we've seen such a deluge.

What’s the reality? Wilmar has listed all its supplier on its transparency dashboard, in itself another groundbreaking initiative in the push to change our future. Behind the 806 mills that supply it, there are likely more than 2,000 plantations. The company has interacted with almost all of these companies and we've seen cases where clearance operations have been halted once an NGO report has highlighted a policy breach and the company has engaged. Yes, we've also seen a recent case in the Leuser ecosystem, where the supplier has thumbed his nose. There clearly are limits to how far company polices can go to save forests but Wilmar and other TFT members are doing their bit by first pushing and then cancelling all business if that fails and they are being transparent about this whole process. But are we truly being deluged with hundreds of complaints against the companies? Not yet though in time, we might get to such lofty levels; it really is a huge problem. But what if, as might be the case here, the company hasn’t cut the trees? What if future cases involve community encroachment? If we just beat up on the company don’t we risk gross demotivation, a reality where company people throw up their hands and say “to hell with it” and give up? Don’t we also risk pushing the company to take serious action against communities, or asking the government, the police, often armed, to do so? There is a huge risk here that by ignoring the deep complexity in what is actually happening on the ground, that we not only miss the chance to understand the situation and plan for solutions by engaging communities and all stakeholders, but that we might even go beyond what’s reasonable and create violence. It has happened that security forces ostensibly recruited to protect forests have killed community members, remember? The level of discussion really needs to mature, and quickly.

What we know is that there's a real grappling going on within the companies working on this issue. They’re grappling with an industry that has for the past 30 years operated unhindered in its efforts to establish plantations by clearing forests. Wilmar, TFT and our other members are embedded into this culture and are striving for new ways of working. If people felt that was going to be as easy as just announcing a new policy, then naivety reigns supreme. Importantly, a growing number of NGOs are engaging alongside companies to grapple together and it's in these cases where most progress is being made. Yet divisions remain amongst NGOs too. Many argue there should be no engagement and there is conflict in some of their arguments. Social NGOs say the communities have the right to encroach and should be allowed to do so. Environmental NGOs say 'No tree felled". Never the 'twain shall meet?

What Jacobsen's article fails to capture is the complexity in the field. Both he and Greenomics - who I respect very much by the way - have just said that regardless of whatever the company says, any clearance inside their boundary is their fault, their plan, they could stop it if they wished and therefore they're guilty and it's all going to hell. This is just another example of the ongoing war, the ridiculous dichotomy pedaled between NGOs and companies. Lest we forget that wars create wastelands and deep injuries to people and Nature. Shouldn’t we call a ceasefire? Failing to do so is developmentally immature and it’s holding us all back.

NGOs, reporters, government teams, companies, non-profits all need to get out from behind computer screens and get out into the field and work out – together - what really is going on. Company policies are a new positive contribution and efforts to implement them are very real. Efforts to deal with breaches are real too and where they're not, consequences exist. If people can perhaps open their minds and stop being so god-dammed negative about each other all the time and instead work together to get to the root of these wicked problems and creatively imagine ways to solve them, each player in the game doing their bit, we might actually save some forests. Casting aspersions from a computer screen full of colours only tells a small part of the story and exacerbates disengagement.

Let's better get out in the bush together to find out the reality. Then lets be transparent about what we find and what we do about it. That's exactly what TFT, NGO partners and our members are doing and we invite you, Philip and anyone else to join us.

If we find that Greenomics, WRI and Philip Jacobson are all correct and the Ganda group companies are responsible, then I have no doubt that the companies will be held accountable, regardless of familial links. Better, actions taken will be reported publicly via Wilmar’s transparency dashboard. We should never judge anyone by the fact that their policy has been breached but rather how they respond when a breach has occurred. But if we find that it was community encroachment, then I hope that people might then be open to saying, "OK, let's work out how we deal with that issue then.” Couldn't we have a more mature dialogue between companies and NGOs, encouraged by the reporters that tell their stories, where we get as much information and data as we can before we jump to judgment? Where we take people at their word that they are in fact serious about implementing their policies based on their fundamental values and beliefs? If we can, we might stand a chance of getting the better of these massive, wicked problems.

Community encroachment is a huge issue and until we address it, Toby's tipping point remains a very distant and very depressing dream.

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