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The race to zero deforestation

Forests cover almost one-third of the world’s land area and over one billion people rely on them for their livelihoods. Source: Steve Nicholson, director of sustainability at Solaris Paper

As of March 2017, nearly 450 companies had made 760 commitments to curb forest destruction in supply chains ranging from palm oil, soy, timber, pulp and cattle.

Likewise, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement saw 80% of the nearly 200 signatories, including Australia, commit to halting deforestation and better forest management and agricultural landscapes. Clearly, ending deforestation has become a conscious effort for companies worldwide.

Despite these commitments, the World Resources Institute reported that global tree cover loss reached a record 29.7 million hectares in 2016, an acceleration of 51% from the previous year.

The loss is an area the size of New Zealand. Australia is a contributor to this statistic, projections suggesting that 3 million hectares of untouched forest will be bulldozed in eastern Australia in the two decades leading up to 2030[1]. This is not the right course on the path to zero deforestation by 2020[2] or even 2030[3].

The state of our forests is critical and we must rethink how to protect them. Businesses and people must find a way to integrate forests into farming, people and plants rather than taking a ‘one or the other’ approach.

Ending deforestation is a journey that requires a transformation in how companies do business. This transformation starts with two key areas that can help accelerate companies on the course to reach zero deforestation: enhancing collaboration to combine areas of expertise; and harnessing the latest development in data-centric, remote sensing technologies.

We’re all in this together

Ending deforestation is not the responsibility of one government, one NGO or one company. Protecting the planet affects the whole world, so it is a responsibility for the whole world.

It’s obvious from the range of commitments and declarations that both governments and companies share similar objectives with NGOs and experts regarding ending deforestation, but they often approach each other as adversaries rather than partners.

This needs to change if we are to tackle the issue of reducing forest loss effectively. Compromise and developing an understanding of each side’s motivations and beliefs is key.

Deeper coordination among all levels of stakeholders is necessary to identify opportunities for collaboration and catalyse effective action.

We’ve seen encouraging examples from countries like Indonesia which have effectively built on the strengths of each stakeholder to pursue production while ensuring protection.

Unilever proves to be a valuable case study, particularly as it pursues jurisdictional approaches involving thousands of stakeholders.

The company’s memorandum of understanding with the provincial government of Central Kalimantan, the district government of Kotawaringin Barat, local NGO InovasiBumi (INOBU), other palm companies, NGOs and smallholders is a great example of how to address deforestation for the long term by combining the strengths of various stakeholders from culture to agronomics.

Organisations need to feel empowered to seek out their greatest critics while still involving their traditional allies to combine ideas from across the spectrum.

Engaging in constructive discussion with critics, such as NGOs, companies can identify shortcomings via supplier assessment tools to involve more stakeholders in the process of vetting potential suppliers. We are all in this together and must take a united front rather than sever connection if we are to ever reach a state of zero deforestation.

Embrace technology to save the planet

While forestry is one of the oldest industries in the world, advancements in technology are continuing to transform practices – particularly monitoring systems.

Satellite technology and global platforms like Google Earth or Global Forest Watch now enable every person to engage in forest monitoring from their home computer. Even in the most remote locations, forest cover change can be detected, and ground patrols can be sent to address the issues.

Ninety per cent of all accessible data on Earth was produced in the last two years alone. By using technology to both capture much larger sources of data that we’ve ever had available and to target human/physical resources to complement technology, organisations can be exponentially more effective at reaching shared objectives related to minimising third-party encroachment.

While the technology continues to develop, its true value once again resides in how multiple stakeholders can apply their individual expertise to the new technology available to take real, data-driven action with the goal of reducing forest destruction to zero.

Shared goals, paired with the latest technology, give governments, NGOs, business partners, communities, activists and suppliers more commonalities than differences. We need the help of all parties to achieve our vision and support the protection of forests.

[1] Global deforestation hotspot’: 3m hectares of Australian forest to be lost in 15 years, The Guardian

[2]  Consumer Goods Forum target

[3] Sustainable Development Goal and New York Declaration on Forests target