Consumer goods brands and retailers aiming to reduce their climate impacts or even become positive for forests can find cost-effective solutions to protect forests when they partner with indigenous communities on the ground.
In the industrialized world, we have never been so disconnected from the land where we buy our commodities, so it is more essential than ever for food companies to engage with their suppliers to deal with the double crisis of loss of biodiversity and climate change. Food production alone is responsible for a third of our greenhouse gas emissions – a quarter of those emissions from agriculture and land use change, especially deforestation.
estimates that the ecosystem services created by forests are worth more than $ 125 trillion a year – they stabilize the climate; store carbon; provide food, wood and medicine; cleaning our air and water; and preventing soil erosion, flooding and landslides – therefore urgent action is needed. Forests, of course, also maintain habitat for wildlife, which has become more relevant than ever: when such habitat is lost, it increases the risk of viruses such as COVID-19 spreading from animals to humans.
Despite the importance of forests, the products of many brands are still associated with deforestation – with crops, meat, textiles, furniture and more all produced at the expense of forests. Over the past decade, this has led a growing number of companies to engage in policies to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. But many brands are still accused of not doing enough.
Fortunately, partnerships with indigenous communities offer brands a cost-effective method to keep forests standing, protect biodiversity and reduce carbon emissions, while strengthening human rights.
The role of indigenous communities
A recent UN
The report found that indigenous communities are often the best protectors of forests, able to draw on generations of ancestral experience and knowledge of a given forest landscape to maintain forest health and live in balance with nature. .
The protection of forests by indigenous peoples through Brazil, Bolivia and
Colombia avoided up to 60 million metric tonnes of carbon emissions each year between 2000 and 2012. To put that in context, that’s equivalent to taking over 9 million cars off the road for that time frame. Indigenous peoples’ lands comprise 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, making them essential links in nature conservation efforts.
Brands can harness the skills of indigenous communities to help them achieve their climate change and biodiversity goals. Indigenous communities are present in a third of all forests – many of which are at the frontiers of development for cocoa, palm oil, livestock and other commodities. By taking a positive approach to forests, brands can go beyond simply not buying products from those who deforest, to actively protecting existing forests.
A win-win solution
british supermarket Waitrose is an example of how such an approach works in practice. Like most brands, they do not have a field team present on the ground in the forest landscapes from which they source raw materials such as palm oil.
Waitrose therefore chose to partner with the natives Muli
community to protect an area of tropical forest in Borneo, which is equivalent in size to the land they need to grow palm oil for use in their own brand (private label) products. Together, a local civil society organization and the community will protect the forest and monitor its wildlife, while investing in further improvements to the livelihoods of the community.
This forest protection costs only US $ 40 per hectare per year for Waitrose, or about 1 to 2 percent of the export price of palm oil. This amount also covers the cost of quarterly satellite forest cover monitoring, to ensure that no farms are established inside the forest of the Mlui people.
The importance of land rights
The Mlui are used to keeping their forest lands safe from loggers and agricultural expansion. An important factor in the success of this project is that this local community has been recognized by the Indonesian government as an indigenous group and has followed a legal process to have their rights to manage their forests recognized.
The UN report underscored how securing land rights for tribal and indigenous communities is a vital step in enabling indigenous peoples to become stewards of forests. The government may not always recognize that it owns land; thus, companies can help before any development begins by engaging with communities and establishing and mapping where their customary lands are located, and by working with local groups to help these communities gain legal recognition.
Conservation and certification
Traditionally, many brands have relied on certification programs to help them purchase products unrelated to tropical forest clearing. But it is important to recognize that there is little forest in such certified areas: they are indeed farms. So while such programs can help companies deliver on their promise to deliver deforestation-free products, they alone do not prevent deforestation from happening elsewhere for other companies. Only by actively protecting forests can brands truly become not only deforestation-free, but forest-positive.
Protecting standing forests is also the most cost-effective and efficient way to plant trees, according to Kew Botanical Gardens‘ 10 golden rules for restoring forests. While many brands support active tree-planting efforts, it can take hundreds of years for a planted forest to recover the carbon and biodiversity stored in the already existing natural forest. This is not to criticize tree planting, as it plays a role in forest regeneration, but it is important to understand where it stands in terms of forest conservation priorities.
Ultimately, forest conservation and carbon reduction are about people – we will never achieve our climate and biodiversity goals without involving people in conservation. There needs to be more private sector investment to help indigenous peoples be protectors of forests. Not only is it profitable; it is a simple way for brands to communicate their actions to conserve forests and reduce carbon to customers, while directing us towards a positive future for forests.