Conservationist to corporate leaders: ‘Just doing the right thing is not enough’

A palm oil plantation surrounded by forests, pictured above, in Indonesia. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

Companies must do more to press governments to act on deforestation, Conservation International CEO Dr. M. Sanjayan told corporate leaders last week.

“At the end of the day, for industry it doesn’t matter really if you’re doing the right thing or not. What matters is that Indonesia is burning,” Sanjayan said.

Consumer pressure will impact entire commodity markets, such as palm oil, regardless of commitments from individual companies, Sanjayan said.

“The Titanic is sinking, and we’re going around trying to figure out who has the lifejackets and who doesn’t,” Sanjayan said. “It doesn’t really work that way. We’ll all sink or swim together.”

His remarks came at a meeting last week of the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 in Accra, Ghana. Formed in 2010, the alliance seeks to end deforestation caused by the production of palm oil, soy, beef and pulp and paper by 2020. Major companies have committed to ending deforestation, but global progress has been slow.

Each year, approximately 8 million hectares (20 million acres) of forest are lost to deforestation, an area the size of the state of Maine. The vast majority of forest loss is caused by agricultural expansion.

According to Sanjayan, promising examples of stopping deforestation exist, but widespread action has yet to become the norm in deforestation-heavy regions.

“Collectively, we’re not collecting the progress we thought we would be,” he said.

This continued loss of forests has widespread effects.

“When everything else fails … what is the ultimate social net for the poorest among us? It’s nature. And that’s the value of the forest at the end of the day.”

Forests provide essential services to billions of people around the world in the form of clean water, stable soils and abundant pollinators. Deforestation and land degradation result in more , according to global estimates.

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According to Sanjayan, campaigners need to use these local values to sell the idea of protection to policymakers, who are uniquely able to hold all producers to the same standards. Rather than simply supplying niche markets for certified products, leading producers must work to change the way their industry works, he said.

Deforestation, particularly from the production of palm oil, has become a cause célèbre among environmentalists, with some groups advocating the elimination of palm oil from consumer products.

According to John Buchanan, vice president of sustainable production at Conservation International, an outright boycott is the wrong approach.

“As far as edible oils go, palm oil is actually quite good,” Buchanan said, citing the crop’s efficiency.

According to experts, oil palm yields four to 10 times more oil per hectare than other oilseed crops. Globally, palm oil represents about 38 percent of the world’s supply of edible oil, even though it only occupies 5 percent of the land dedicated to oilseed crops.

“With international demand for edible oils growing steadily, more oil from less land is a good thing,” Buchanan said. “It’s where and how it’s grown that we need to change.”

According to Sanjayan, that change needs to happen sector-wide to be successful.

“It’s no longer sufficient for each company to stand up and say, ‘I’m doing the right thing.’ Nor is it enough for one country or for one region of that country to say, ‘We’re doing the right thing,’” Sanjayan said.

“Just doing the right thing is not enough.”

Jamey Anderson is a senior writer at Conservation International.

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