Forests first, people second?

Forests first, people second?

It was a few years ago that a couple of my TFT colleagues were sat in a meeting with one of our members and two NGOs. There was a problem.

If the company set aside High Carbon Stock (HCS) forest areas outside its development zone and left that land with the communities who hold customary rights over it, who was to say that the forest would be protected?

One of the NGOs, with environmental concerns, made it clear in very explicit terms, that it was the company’s absolute obligation to ensure that forest wasn’t cleared, even though they had no ownership over the land. “Speak to the communities,” they advised, hoping that the sweet magic of the company’s voice and perhaps its money, appropriately distributed, might entice the communities down the path to forest protection.

The other NGO, a champion for community rights, made it clear in their own explicit way that if the communities wanted to clear the forest for development, then that was their human and legal right. It’s their land, they can do what they want with it. “These are poor people”, the NGO explained, “They need income from development. They get nothing from the forest as a carbon store.”

“OK” said the environmental NGO, but then made it clear that it would be a breach – that the NGO would publicly highlight - of the company’s No Deforestation policy if they were to subsequently buy from those former forest, now community plantations.

The company was stuck. It faced a shaming from the environmental NGO if the forest was cleared, even if the company didn’t do it themselves. It faced a shaming from the social NGO if it then refused to buy from those community plantations. More than likely it would face grief from the government too.

The company representatives scratched their heads, turned to the NGOs and to my TFT colleagues and asked, “Can you guys sort out a way forward and let us know?”

As of today, there is still no clear way forward. The two NGOs are working on the development of the HCS Approach in the hope that together with other stakeholders, they can agree a way forward. This is positive. Unfortunately, this question of what to do with community development, alongside the question of what to do in high forest cover landscapes, keeps getting kicked down the road. It’s too hard. It requires people to take a position on the thorny question of forests versus people; whichever way you side, you can be sure to get dirty looks from the other.

Meanwhile, life keeps moving forward and communities aren’t waiting for us to advise them on the right way, “Let me know when you’re done so I can get on and feed my family!” No. Forests are coming down and as a consequence companies are starting to be shamed.

Companies, communities, NGOs, politicians and other civil society actors the world over are grappling with the fundamental question of whether to prioritize human rights and well being over Nature or to put Nature first.

There are temporal issues. Chop down the forest today, re-open that coal mine tomorrow, drive that pipeline through sacred indigenous lands, dump that toxic waste over there for now as some are doing and there’ll be jobs and income in the short term. Long term though, will environmental destruction and particularly climate change come back to bite us and have us rushing to restore Nature, too late? Those concerned for the environment feel certain it will end in tears.

Interestingly, around the question of forests, there are forces pulling in the “Nature first!” direction.

So much forest has been lost and along with it habitat for so many critically endangered species – yes, we are also facing a mass extinction crisis – that calls to protect each and every possible remaining hectare are strong.

In the palm oil industry, notwithstanding that forest continues to fall, leading companies have taken a strong position on forest conservation. This is having an impact. It was recently reported that there are 6.1 million hectares of “stranded” land in Indonesia. This is land that can legally be developed but where doing so would breach company or customer No Deforestation policies. There is a lot of forest on smallholder, customary held land - no one knows how much but there is a sense that it’s a sizeable chunk of the 6.1 million hectares identified as “stranded”. The key questions emerging from recent experience are: “how much of that will ultimately be saved?” and “is it morally right that community land is stranded in this way?”

Notwithstanding the legal issues they face by not clearing, companies with existing plantations are better able to cope with stranded land problems. They can trade-off the stranded development against long-term contracts to supply global markets with No Deforestation oil. Community members, smallholder farmers, who might only have a few hectares, don’t have that luxury. They need income each day, each week, to feed their families, send their children to school and to afford any other support they need, for example health care.

Many argue against any easing of No Deforestation commitments to allow smallholders to go ahead. The fear is that any relaxation would lead to rapid, mass destruction. On the other hand, there is broad acknowledgement that these communities need income, they need resilience and above all, that the land and the forest growing on it is theirs. Even if you could pay communities to conserve forests the amounts would pale against the income they could receive by felling forests and growing palm oil. Can it be enough to support future development? And will the funding be ongoing?

There are suggestions that growers should always ensure that land set aside for plasma be already cleared, non-forested land. Nice idea but it ignores the fact that palm oil companies must negotiate with communities to compensate them for all land they release to the company, forested or non-forested. Communities are not obliged to release any land and if they choose to keep the forested land, there is nothing the company can do to subsequently protect it, except by telling the communities that they won’t buy any fruits from plantations developed on cleared forest land. The communities see this approach as a threat and risks encouraging them to clear the land as fast as they can. They can either use the fruit locally or find another buyer who doesn’t care whether the land was once forested; that kind of buyer does exist.

But what if instead of seeing the question as a dichotomy between forests and people, we looked at it as forests and people? There is much evidence from all over the world to support the argument that communities with secure land tenure are the best forest guardians.

Companies, who in many cases are already in deep dialogue with the communities over these issues, could support the communities to secure tenure over their communally held land. Communities often clear land as fast as they can because they have insecure land rights. Why not go the next step and support their efforts to secure legal title? That said, in Indonesia, a lot of the forest held under communal rights has long been trashed by the plywood industry. In the short term, until the forest is restored, there aren’t many benefits a community can secure from such forests. It might not work but evidence from elsewhere suggests it’s worth a try.

There is a risk that having finally developed a great tool in HCS, that we turn a blind eye to its limitations. It was designed first and foremost as a tool to conserve forests and has subsequently been amended to lean toward accommodating community needs. We really do need to see communities not only as key stakeholders, but also as legitimate rights holders.

What if securing community rights underpinned HCS? What if it was the first step? With their rights duly acknowledged the discussion between communities, companies, NGOs and governments would be on a more equal footing.  

We actually need to expand forest areas and the beauty of the HCS concept is that it provides a chance for degraded forest to recover to offer communities and all of us much needed ecosystem services in the long term. In the short term though there is still a lot of forest that communities are justifiably eyeing as opportunities for development and there isn’t any mechanism yet that communities would recognise as giving them sufficient value to warrant them protecting it. More forest will go, no doubt about it.

This is a sticky, wicked problem, and like all such problems, the only way forward is for people with divergent views to get together and try things in the field, on the ground, where smallholder farmers struggle to feed their families and where forest habitats are destroyed at alarming rates.

We need to innovate and develop new approaches, new tools. Right now, the one we haven’t yet pushed far enough is supporting communities to get land tenure. I think it’s worth a try.

What do you think?

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