Stopping Deforestation & Exploitation: Thoughts for NGO & Company Friends

Stopping Deforestation & Exploitation: Thoughts for NGO & Company Friends

Recent NGO commentary on palm oil company efforts to end deforestation and exploitation has been dispiriting. If we’re to achieve extraordinary and delightfully unexpected things like protecting people and forests, we need trust and understanding to emerge between NGOs and companies. History suggests that that’s not impossible but if we’re to get there, both parties must play their part. Continually telling companies that they’re rubbish risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Efforts to improve Congo Basin forest management turned an unexpected corner in November 2004 when a Greenpeace 4WD got properly stuck in a ditch. The experience opened the door to a better relationship between the NGO and its protagonist, Congolaise Industrielle des Bois (CIB) that catalysed a major change in Congo Basin forest management.

As leading companies in the palm oil sector grapple with the challenge of delinking their operations from deforestation and exploitation, we need a ditch-like breakthrough between NGOs and companies. The initial hope amongst NGOs around company commitments is dimming to ‘disappointment’ as they worry at insufficient progress. For their part, leading companies feel they’re giving everything to implement their commitments but that they can’t achieve the impossible alone. Being constantly told ‘not good enough’ is wearing them down and taking wind from their sails. Might we learn something from the Congo Basin experience?

CIB had pledged to go for FSC certification in March 2004. This was good news but Greenpeace remained sceptical. Nonetheless, they were willing to engage because they felt that CIB could set a high bar as the first FSC certificate in the region. Dialogue around a possible Greenpeace visit to CIB started in May but had quickly bogged down. Greenpeace wanted to come for an unlimited time and have unrestricted access to go wherever they wanted. CIB figured a week was more than enough and wanted a clear itinerary. After much back and forth (and a little external intervention), CIB agreed that Greenpeace could go where they wanted and stay as long as they liked. That was a huge breakthrough but achieving it had created great tension in the lead up to Greenpeace’s arrival.

On the fateful morning, the Greenpeace team, having driven for days without incident on poor quality roads across the whole of Cameroon, cruised into CIB’s Pokola compound and promptly lodged themselves in the only mud-hole within miles, right outside the main CIB office. There was much wheel spinning and pushing but the vehicle refused to budge. One of Greenpeace’s pre-conditions for the visit had been that they would receive no help from CIB. Looking from his office window, CIB’s Director General laughed uncontrollably at the NGO’s predicament. “I wonder if they’ll accept our help now?” he pondered. “Otherwise they’ll have a long time to wait for that mud-hole to dry!” It was pretty uncomfortable watching the Greenpeace team’s efforts to extract the vehicle but after a good hour during which many photos were taken and many heads were scratched, a machine was summoned and the car duly extracted.

Talk about icebreaker! Most of the tension washed away as a group of human beings worked together to solve a shared problem. That set the tone for the rest of the two-week visit. At the end of their tour, Greenpeace submitted a long report informed by a great coming together of aligned minds. CIB took on board all 78 recommendations and achieved their first FSC certificate in May 2006. Now, some 5 million hectares of Congo Basin forests are FSC certified. How many are credibly certified and truly contributing to forest conservation is another discussion but by getting down and dirty in a ditch together, CIB and Greenpeace people found a positive tone and resonance for the tough discussions that laid the basis for an unheralded transformation at scale.

That’s not what’s happening in the palm oil space. Whispers hint at deep frustration on both sides. For companies, there’s a sense that no matter what they do, there’ll be no recognition, no encouragement, no support to find solutions. It’s all on their shoulders. No NGOs are in the ditch with them. It wasn’t always such. Greenpeace engaged strongly with GAR for a number of years and out of that partnership came exciting innovation around High Carbon Stock forests. Progress on other fronts was slow though and the partnership has drifted. Greenpeace’s recent report about the Indonesian fires suggests their own deep frustration and a disintegration of what was once a positive cooperation. But as company programs continue to move forward and new resources are thrown at the deforestation and exploitation problem, committed companies still feel like easy targets while others carry on business as usual and governments build barriers. NGOs would counter that more needs to be done. None of the companies would disagree. At question is what each party can do alone, what might they better achieve together and what they need others to do to open the way.

An important missing ingredient is presence at the front, in the ditch, like Greenpeace did with CIB, of committed NGO partners who look, listen and learn the issues from the company perspective, sharing their subsequently informed insights into how things could be done differently. Right now, all that happens is high-level meetings, letters to Chairmen and grumpy name and shame reporting. It’s not an enriching dialogue. It drains energy from both sides.

There is a real risk that NGOs like RAN, Friends of the Earth, Forest People's Programme and even the Greenpeace palm oil team will lose their ability to give effective input because the companies will simply stop listening. Tell someone they’re rubbish enough times and at best they’ll walk away and at worst, give up.

The key lesson that came from the CIB-Greenpeace interaction and that we need in the palm oil discussion is that progress depends 100% on people. With all their good and bad points, their imperfections, egos, loves, fears, hopes and worries, it is people that hold the key. We need to nurture them; they don’t need scorn. With the CIB case, we learned that people who seemingly have little in common actually could come together; one could hold the rope while the other danced. If both are prepared to listen but speak their own truths without disdain and recognize their shared commitments, innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems do emerge, and quickly.

The most important NGO-company interactions going forward, if you measure success by the amount of change created, will be those that see the two parties getting down and dirty in a ditch together. Our forests and those affected by the palm oil industry need genuine, solution-oriented engagement. Only then might we truly dance on clouds.

Cartoon used with kind permission from Michael Leunig 

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