ALERT's latest campaign: 'Sustainable' corporation blasted for destroying Amazon rainforest

A corporation that aims to be the world’s biggest supplier of ‘sustainable’ cacao -- the main ingredient in chocolate -- is being accused by ALERT scientists of destroying large expanses of biodiversity-rich forest in Peru.  ALERT issued this press release today.

Rainforest destruction in the Peruvian Amazon...

Rainforest destruction in the Peruvian Amazon...

The Company, United Cacao, previously raised 10 million pounds on the London Stock Exchange, and is now hoping to raise additional funds on the Lima Stock Exchange in Peru to expand its operations in the Peruvian Amazon. 

ALERT scientists caution investors that United Cacao’s products may be far from environmentally sustainable, and that they should exercise exceptional caution before investing in the company or its Peruvian subsidiary, Cacao del Peru Norte.

“This company has its roots in Southeast Asia’s palm oil industry, which has been a huge driver of forest destruction,” said ALERT director William Laurance.  Laurance has conducted research in the Amazon region for nearly 20 years.

“World-class scientists at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University and the Amazon Conservation Association have used satellite data and cutting-edge laser technology to show that United Cacao has recently cleared more than 2,000 hectares of mostly old-growth rainforest in Peru,” said ALERT member Thomas Lovejoy, a long-term Amazon expert and former environmental advisor to three U.S. presidents.

A small fraction of the cleared land evidently was farmed in the past, and parts of the forest were likely selectively logged in the 1980s, according to a detailed report in the leading environmental website, based on thorough investigative research by John C. Cannon.

However, the laser technology -- known as LIDAR -- has shown that the carbon stocks contained in the destroyed forests were among the highest known for the Peruvian Amazon, according to Carnegie researcher Greg Asner.  This clearly indicates that the cleared block was formerly dominated by mature or old-growth rainforest.

“There’s no way you can clear old-growth rainforest and then claim to produce sustainable cacao,” said Lovejoy. 

“Not only that,” said Lovejoy, “but the corporation did so very quietly and without conducting an environmental impact study.  That sets a very dangerous precedent.”

“We see a lot of green-washing among corporations today -- where firms try to appear sustainable but really aren’t,” said ALERT member Lian Pin Koh, an associate professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia. 

“My fear, based on these recent findings of large-scale forest destruction, is that United Cacao is one of these green-washing corporations,” said Koh. 

“The forests of the Peruvian Amazon are just about the biologically richest real estate on the planet,” said Laurance.  “And unfortunately there’s a feeding frenzy happening, with large-scale expansion of oil palm and cacao plantations, as well as a great deal of legal and illegal mining and logging.”

“Investors need to be sure that they’re putting their money into projects and corporations that are truly sustainable,” said Laurance.  “Right now we have a lot of doubts about United Cacao.”

Using drones for environmental research and spying

Think of them as robots with wings.  When it comes to the environment, drones are all the rage right now. 

Ready to launch... forest monitoring in Nepal

Ready to launch... forest monitoring in Nepal

For instance, Brazil is experimenting with drones as a way to monitor forests and land-use in the Amazon, especially for keeping a close eye on landowners who try to clear forests illegally.

And Kenya plans to deploy drones to spy on poachers within 52 of its national parks, after a wildly successful pilot program found drones reduced poaching by up to 96%.

ALERT member Lian Pin Koh is a leader in developing cost-effective drones for conservation research.  Here he tells us a bit more about his work:

Conservation is impossible without good field data.  Traditionally, conservation scientists have relied on ground-based surveys, manned aircraft, and satellite images to acquire the data they need.  But all these approaches have disadvantages—they are often expensive, difficult, or limited in the area they can cover.

For this reason Serge Wich and I founded the ConservationDrones project in 2012.

Conservation drones are low-cost, autonomous, and operator-friendly aerial vehicles.  They can fly pre-programmed missions of up to 40 kilometers, and acquire high-quality videos and photos.

The drone’s ’brain’ is an autopilot system developed by an online community of drone builders.  Many drones are equipped with a still-photograph camera with built-in GPS, so that all photographs are geo-tagged.

The flight path for each mission is created by simply clicking waypoints on a Google satellite map.  The drone is hand-launched, and then goes about its mission and returns and lands automatically.

A drone's-eye view: no place to hide for illegal loggers

A drone's-eye view: no place to hide for illegal loggers

Remarkably, our drones cost just a few thousand dollars each.  We are using them to survey forests, to track rhinos, orangutans, and elephants, and to detect poachers and illegal logging and forest burning. 

Because they are so cheap, easy to use, and versatile, our drones are increasingly being used by NGOs and governments around the world.  We think they can make a big contribution to nature conservation—the sky’s the limit!


Why are Indonesia's forests so imperiled?

No nation on Earth is losing forest faster than Indonesia--the magical land of over 13,000 islands.  But what is causing all that deforestation?

No. 1 forest killer--industrial pulpwood plantation (photo by William Laurance)

No. 1 forest killer--industrial pulpwood plantation (photo by William Laurance)

Sinan Abood, ALERT member Lian Pin Koh, and their colleagues assessed the specific drivers of forest loss in Indonesia, between 2000 and 2010.  The picture that emerged has some surprises.

For one thing, the biggest driver of forest loss wasn't oil palm, but rather industrial pulpwood plantations.  Mega-corporations such as Asia Pulp & Paper and APRIL have cleared vast expanses of rainforest and peat-swamp forest for such plantations, especially in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo.

Second on the list was industrial logging.  This indicates that logged forests in Indonesia, which still harbor a great deal of biodiversity (see this blog), are intensely vulnerable to being cleared.

Oil palm, while still important, was actually number three on the list of industrial forest destroyers. 

Notably, the authors surmised that over half of all deforestation was caused by actors other than the big three above--including slash-and-burn farming, legal and illegal mining, and other causes.

The authors conclude that vast expanses of Indonesia's forest have been allocated to industrial concessions, especially logging concessions, where they are intensely vulnerable to being cleared.  Some of the greatest conservation opportunities in Asia revolve around finding ways to protect these imperiled industrial forests