Real hope for the world's rainforests

Although originally trained as an economist, Rhett Butler -- the entrepreneurial founder of the leading environmental website Mongabay.com -- has become one of the world's most respected thinkers about rainforest ecology and conservation.  And when someone of Rhett's caliber says there's real reason to be hopeful about the future, it's time to listen.

Warm and fuzzy news for rainforests

Warm and fuzzy news for rainforests

In a recent essay, Rhett argues that two developments are beginning to change the landscape for rainforest conservation.

The first is that deforestation is increasingly shifting from a poverty-driven phenomenon to one driven by profits, with forests being felled to produce timber and agricultural goods -- such as oil palm, soy, sugar, and beef -- destined for international and urban markets.

That means that consumers -- including you and me -- can increasingly have a voice.  We can vote with our wallets, electing to buy sustainably produced products and to avoid those that contribute to forest destruction.

This changing reality is starting have real effect.  In just the past year or two, many of the world's largest oil palm, wood-pulp, and food-producing corporations have announced no-deforestation commitments.  The jury is still out for many of these corporations, but the trend and reality is undeniable: It's not longer possible to wantonly destroy tropical forests with arrogance and impunity.

The other sea-change is the increasing use of satellite monitoring to track deforestation in real time.  This is a huge arrow in the quiver of conservationists, as much forest destruction and degradation is illegal -- occurring in the shadows of remote frontier regions.

In the vast Brazilian Amazon, for instance, the annual rate of deforestation has fallen by at least 75 percent, and many credit the nation's marriage of real-time satellite monitoring with geographic data on land titling and ownership as a crucial element.  This has allowed authorities to know where and when deforestation is occurring illegally, so they can crack down on offenders.

Such remote-sensing data are increasingly being used by organizations such as Global Forest Watch to monitor forest loss and degradation around the world.  In addition, cool new technologies such as drones, automatic cameras, DNA analysis, and smart-phones are giving conservationists a leg up in the battle to detect illegal activities.

Deforestation has remained stubbornly high in many tropical regions.  But, as Rhett Butler argues, thanks to mounting consumer pressures and remarkable new technologies, there is real reason for hope. 

Company to spend $12 million felling Papua's rainforests

How much rainforest can you destroy with $12 million?  Quite a lot, actually...

Make way for oil palm...  (photo by William Laurance)

Make way for oil palm... (photo by William Laurance)

According to a recent report by the Indonesian policy group Greenomics, an Indonesian oil palm company plans to spend $12 million over the next three years to clear over 38,000 hectares of intact rainforest in Papua

That's an area roughly the size of 75,000 football fields.

The Indonesian province of Papua encompasses the western half of the island of New Guinea.  Its ancient rainforests are among the biologically richest ecosystems on Earth.

Notably, the oil palm company planning to fell the forests, known as PT Austindo Nusantara Jaya Tbk -- or ANJT for short -- has been a key supplier of the mega-corporation Wilmar, the world's biggest palm oil producer. 

Earlier this year Wilmar issued a "no-deforestation pledge", promising not to clear any more forests for palm oil production.

Clearly, Wilmar's pledge will be laughable if it promises it won't clear forests, and then simply buys palm oil from ANJT -- which is busily bulldozing some of the world's most biologically diverse and carbon-rich rainforests.

So, let's all keep a sharp eye on Wilmar -- while urging it to steer clear of forest-killing companies like ANJT.

 

Will corporations save the Earth?

Guilty as charged.  That would be my plea if I were accused of "distrusting big corporations".  But in a provocative new essay, writer Alice Korngold argues that mega-corporations are the only thing that can save us.

Really, you can trust us...

Really, you can trust us...

It's a novel argument.  For as long as I can remember, the hand on the chainsaw and the driver of the roaring bulldozer has had a corporate face -- a face focused, above all, on maximizing profits.

Yet, Korngold asserts that multinational corporations have vast financial resources and a capacity to work internationally that governments just can't touch.  That's crucial, she argues, in an era in which many of our environmental and social crises are global in scope.

Clearly, a well-meaning corporation can have a big influence on its entire business sector.  For instance, we've seen a wave of forest-destroying firms declaring "no-deforestation" policies, following the pioneering declaration by the oil palm giant Golden Agri Resources. 

It's a herd-mentality thing, one surmises.  When everybody is suddenly turning green, who wants to be left behind?

Still, Korngold doesn't suggest all corporations are well-meaning or that they can save the planet on their own. 

The best outcomes arise, she argues, when mega-firms pair up with NGOs or nonprofits.  It's also important for corporations to embrace sustainability at the board level, engage with their stakeholders, and commit to accountability and transparency, she says.

I guess the take-home messages are two-fold.  First, we need to keep up the pressure on corporate bad guys -- so their reputations and market shares suffer, giving them a real incentive to improve their performance.

Second, we need to engage and work with enlightened firms, and those willing to turn over a new leaf.  Greenpeace's recent detente with Asia Pulp & Paper -- formerly the dark beast of the environment -- is one such example.

It's a brave new corporate world.  We hope. 

-Bill Laurance

 

Mega-corporation still destroying forests, despite green pledge

Does the mega-corporation APRIL -- which has cleared more than a million hectares of native forest in Sumatra, Indonesia -- speak with a forked tongue? 

Rainforest clearing in central Sumatra by APRIL  (photo by William Laurance)

Rainforest clearing in central Sumatra by APRIL (photo by William Laurance)

That certainly seems to be the case, based on recent photos of forest destruction in Sumatra, captured by Greenpeace.

APRIL made headline news earlier this year with a high-profile 'no-deforestation pledge'.  Many observers had doubts, however, including ALERT director Bill Laurance in this essay.

APRIL -- also known as Asia Pacific Resources International Limited -- is one of the world's biggest producers of paper pulp.  Much of this has come from clearing native forests in Sumatra -- turning rainforest trees into pulp and then planting exotic tree species in their place.

Rainforest timber stacked up outside APRIL's wood-pulp plant in Sumatra  (photo by William Laurance)

Rainforest timber stacked up outside APRIL's wood-pulp plant in Sumatra (photo by William Laurance)

APRIL has long been criticized for its forest-destroying ways -- see, for instance, this TV interview with Bill Laurance on Australia's Foreign Correspondent program -- but seemed to be turning over a new leaf with its no-deforestation pledge.

Alas, the doubting Thomases may have been correct.  APRIL claims the new, large-scale forest destruction is consistent with their pledge -- but 'no deforestation' means 'no deforestation', right?

World's biggest oil palm producer criticized for breaking pledge

Wilmar, the world's biggest producer of palm oil, has been heavily criticized for holding a sham public hearing in Balikpapan, Indonesia.

Make way for oil palm...

Make way for oil palm...

Wilmar made headlines recently for its pledge to stop clearing any habitats considered of 'High Conservation Value' (HCV)--such as native forest and carbon-rich peatlands. 

But in Balikpapan, Wilmar held a recent public hearing in an attempt to have an important, wildlife-rich forest tract classified as non-HCV, so it could then clear that forest.  But it didn't invite conservation groups or scientists--the very people who were most concerned and best informed about the forest--to the meeting.

Incensed NGOs and scientists have decried Wilmar's tack, saying it violates the spirit and intent of its no-deforestation pledge.

Clearly, Wilmar will have to be watched closely in future to see if it upholds its key promises.  When it comes to such things, actions speak louder than words.

Are global forest-destroyers turning over a new leaf?

Is the world shifting on its axis?  For those who follow the behavior of the biggest forest-destroying corporations, it might seem so.

Will forest-killing corporations give up their axes?  (photo by Chi'en Lee)

Will forest-killing corporations give up their axes?  (photo by Chi'en Lee)

In a piece just published in The Conversation, I highlight how four of the world's biggest oil palm and wood-pulp corporations seem to be changing their stripes--pledging to halt the clearing of native forests and vegetation. 

But is the story too good to be true?  Read all about it here.

-Bill Laurance