Voluntary policies are REALLY important in our efforts to stop deforestation

Voluntary policies are REALLY important in our efforts to stop deforestation

A month ago I received an email with a link to an interesting post by Sam Lawson on the Illegal Deforestation Monitor website. It was a “Comment” entitled: Why voluntary policies will not stop deforestation.

I read it with interest and there’s much in Sam’s Comment that I agree with, especially his thoughts on the main two things that are really needed to stop deforestation – improved governance and the recognition and protection of the rights of local people over forests.

Much of Sam’s Comment was pretty damning about the value of voluntary policies. I found myself feeling uncomfortable about that. Sam mentions that many organisations are focusing a lot of time on this approach. TFT is one of them. I’ve been involved a lot in such work, so yes, I admit to bias. We all have to feel our work is useful, right? So I have pondered Sam’s Comment for some time before responding here.

The first thing that sprang to mind when reading Sam’s article was that while there has been excitement around these policies, few people I know ever thought they were the silver bullet, the one, great thing that would halt deforestation in its tracks. Saying they won’t stop deforestation and damning them for their failure is to criticise them for failing in something they alone were never designed to achieve. Most folk that I’ve dealt with see the commitments as another important piece in the jigsaw, not the jigsaw itself. The positive vibe has come about because company policies – or lack thereof – have been driving terrible deforestation at great scale for such a long time. To see that turn 180 degrees and watch large-scale companies commit to protecting forests has been hugely positive. That said, as Sam rightly points out, that positive vibe will only be translated into truly protected forests if said companies then get off their backsides and implement the policies. Sam feels this is unlikely, that they will not implement them, “The history of corporate campaigning on deforestation is littered with promising commitments which were never implemented”.

Sam’s right about that lack of past implementation though it would be interesting to discuss why so many corporate commitments have come to nothing. The key question here is, "Could this time be different?" I can only speak for the companies that TFT is working with but hand on heart it’s absolutely clear that we’re seeing great efforts being taken to implement some hugely ambitious policies. I believe that’s because the companies have great ownership of the commitments, they’ve made them from a solid foundation of their own values rather than, as may have happened in the past, out of an urgent, expedient need to get NGOs off their backs. Yes, some need to do more, implement faster but out in the field, the results speak for themselves. We don’t know how many hectares have been protected under these new commitments but I know that in one case alone, over 200,000 hectares of High Carbon Stock forest has been set aside and steps, including dialogue with local communities, are being taken to protect it.

Getting companies engaged in finding solutions is positive. Life is similarly littered with NGOs lobbying governments for A while companies lobby for Z, polar opposites, with so much energy spent on fighting corners. On too many occasions those with the deepest pockets, generally not the NGOs, win, no compromise. As Sam notes, both the US and EU have banned the import of wood which was illegally sourced in the country of origin. This strongly positive step was only made possible when companies, finally alive to the cost that their own trade in illegal wood was causing to their own bottom line, teamed up with NGOs to jointly lobby governments for new legislation. Despite this legislation, illegal logging and deforestation continue so improved governance alone isn’t the answer either. Nothing on its own is the answer, the one, the silver bullet. We’ve got to tackle this and other similarly wicked problems from multiple directions. We need companies on board and we need them working alongside NGOs and with government. Sam agrees, urging corporations making these commitments to use their power to push for government action.

Nothing on its own is the answer, the one, the silver bullet. We’ve got to tackle this and other similarly wicked problems from multiple directions.

And that’s a second rub. There is a sense from Sam’s Comment and from NGOs in general that unless they can see it, monitor it and judge it, that it’s not happening. If it is, it can’t possibly be sufficient. IPOP’s demise in Indonesia drew rebuke from NGOs concerned that company members were backing away from important lobbying efforts for improved governance. This isn’t the case. If there was more trust and less fighting between companies and NGOs, they might better discuss and coordinate these lobbying efforts, making them all the more effective.

I found myself reflecting on how good governance comes about, how things improve. My experience is that governments are usually highly reticent, even in developed countries, when it comes to environmental legislation. They fear that new measures will cost jobs. In a democracy, this can quickly cost votes and a move to the opposition benches or worse. In developing countries where poverty and unemployment are huge issues and there are no safety nets, lost jobs can mean violent riots. Governments the world over need to be reassured that all measures to protect the environment or to safeguard people’s rights have broad support and will not lead to violence in the streets.

The emergence of good environmental and social governance typically follows when governments feel empowered and safe to develop strong laws. Usually, NGOs are at least 20 years ahead in their thinking and lobby hard and campaign against companies they target as leaders who could influence the rest of their industry if they moved in the right direction. First movers might start emerging 10 years out. The rest of the industry will watch what happens to these first movers and some will jump on board too. Unfortunately, most don’t and this is where Sam is spot on that legislation is needed to capture all the laggards and naysayers. But this legislation will only emerge if the government feels convinced by those lobbying for change more than they are convinced by those lobbying for the status quo. With the illegal timber regulations in the US and EU, it was relatively easy once the industry and NGOs sang from the same hymn sheet. They had data and proof that illegal logging was not only hurting forests and people in developing countries, it was hurting business and the economy in their countries too. Voila…rapid change.

The voluntary no deforestation policies being implemented by so many companies are giving governments confidence.

The voluntary no deforestation policies being implemented by so many companies are giving governments confidence. If so many companies are demonstrably implementing these policies and are still thriving financially, this sends a positive signal. If voluntary policy companies build new refineries and mills and create more jobs, this really reassures government to act. Environmental and social legislation can only come about when governments feel certain that it will lead to more jobs and a more vibrant economy than before.

And that’s exactly what’s happening in places like Indonesia. No deforestation companies there are speaking to the government. Their customers, brands in the US and EU with their own voluntary policies are sending positive market signals that they only want no deforestation commodities. No one should be surprised to see the Indonesian government implementing strong new legislation during 2016 to protect peatland and forest. It might not yet be enough but it’s a huge leap forward. For sure the tragic 2015 fires have influenced the government but we can be confident that no legislation would now be in place if the government hadn’t checked in with the companies to hear their views on how to create a vibrant, growing industry and if it wasn’t confident there’d be no rioting in the streets. The messages are being quietly and studiously shared.

All this takes time. What of the forest in the meantime? Every hectare set aside today as a result of a voluntary policy is one that stands a better chance of still being there to be protected when the better governance finally arrives. The same is true for recognising and protecting local people’s customary rights over forest. These things don’t happen overnight and most voluntary policies go further than current legislation in recognising these rights. Putting that into practice is a challenge when companies hold concession licenses but again, so much work is being done, way later than it should have been in most cases, between companies and communities to resolve long-standing conflicts. Things are happening on the ground and again, these cases get fed into discussions around governance and governments are able to see that these issues can be resolved and there are real cases where solutions have been found.

What about innovation? These policies have kick-started huge innovation across multiple commodity sectors. Before Nestlé announced the first No Deforestation policy in May 2010 in partnership with TFT and after discussions with Greenpeace, the world had never heard of High Carbon Stock forest. Now there’s a huge process underway to refine techniques developed by TFT, Golden Agri Resources and Greenpeace and take them to scale all over the world across multiple commodities. What’s extraordinary is that former company and NGO combatants are now sitting around the same table grappling not with policy language but with implementation challenges around how to protect these forests. Thank goodness for voluntary policies!

Likewise, when this work started, the push back from the palm oil industry was that tracing palm oil was impossible. Now everyone is reporting on their traceability back to mill and many are now getting right back to the plantation level. That will soon be the norm. This wasn’t possible before the voluntary policies.

There is similar innovation and grappling with processes to resolve social conflict. Companies know they need to deal with it because they have policies that say so as do their customers. Indonesia now has its own Centre of Social Excellence, training people in conflict resolution and mediation techniques, many of them from companies. Who would have thought? And just last week, TFT, in partnership with Sarvision and Airbus Defense and Space announced a new satellite monitoring tool. More innovation is on the way and all of this is driven by the fact that companies across entire commodity supply chains, upstream and downstream, have decided, on the base of their own values, to announce ambitious voluntary policies that they are now implementing.

And lastly, there is an opportunity for a race to the top. If your customer wants no deforestation and no exploitation, how do you differentiate yourself from your competitor who has voluntary policies similar to yours? You come up with the next thing. Asia Pulp and Paper, notwithstanding the issues Sam raises, long considered by NGOs to be the worst of the worst, went beyond its Forest Conservation Policy to announce an ambitious forest restoration project. That’s innovation,

The companies grappling with the implementation of their own voluntary policies and the NGOs in dialogue with them are the flag bearers for a new way of thinking and working that has great prospects to deal with a whole host of issues.

Sam is right that past sins can’t be wiped clean but if people are sitting down discussing one issue, there’s a chance that in time, some of these subjects can be raised and dealt with. None of the things that Sam reminds us as being critical for forest protection will be possible unless people work together. The companies grappling with the implementation of their own voluntary policies and the NGOs in dialogue with them are the flag bearers for a new way of thinking and working that has great prospects to deal with a whole host of issues.

Sam started his Comment by saying that the voluntary commitments are an important step and I really believe he hit the nail on the head there. We differ in that Sam went on to categorically conclude that they’ll never stop deforestation and worse, that they’re a distraction from the main game. As someone who has watched the innovation and energy spring forth once voluntary policies started being announced, I was left feeling Sam’s comments were too black and white. 

In labelling the voluntary policies a distraction, Sam was effectively saying that the work to stop deforestation would be better off, further advanced if companies had never come on board. The illegal logging legislation in the US and EU suggests otherwise. I just can’t countenance that leaving such important stakeholders out in the cold, unengaged in the fight to save forests, carrying on the business as usual that has for decades driven so much deforestation while they wait for government to come along and rein them in with legislation, could ever be seen to be a good approach.

Life emerged from the mess of the swamp. Solutions emerge from getting into the messy grey of life, grappling with the mud, slime and difficulty of getting on with each other and seldom from the stark choice between black and white, good and evil, right and wrong.

Voluntary policies are not the main game but they’re really important and exciting new additions to the forest conservation landscape. Let’s not be definitive or too hasty in our conclusions because I have a strong belief that the values that underpin the policies, once set free, can really bring about unprecedented change. The things that aren’t right yet are being worked on, minds are open, discussions and innovations are possible. We just have to keep going, keep grappling. 

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