Opinion: We can do better to achieve zero deforestation and low-carbon development

An aerial view of the Amazon rainforest. Photo by: Neil Palmer / CIAT / CC BY-SA

Recently, Unilever made an announcement that can be considered unprecedented. It decided to open to the public its data about where it sources palm oil, an ingredient used in many of its food and personal care products.

Unilever said the step aims to improve transparency of its supply chain, and by doing so, could help transform the palm oil industry. The palm oil sector has been the subject of sharp criticisms, partly due to its strong link to deforestation in developing countries, such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

Unilever’s decision follows a trend among hundreds of corporations. In recent years, these companies have pledged to achieve deforestation-free supply chains as a way to reduce carbon emissions and loss of biodiversity.

Pledges from some of those companies come under initiatives such as the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020. The mission of this global public-private partnership is to stop deforestation and lower carbon emissions in the tropics linked to the production of palm oil, soy, beef, and other globally traded commodities.

That supply chain approach is laudable. We believe, however, that we need to do more to reach zero deforestation and low-carbon development.

The approach assumes that the production of commodities drives deforestation. As such, making adjustments to the value chain can theoretically reduce forest loss. It can certainly contribute to reduced forest loss in countries such as Brazil, Indonesia or Malaysia, where globally traded commodities are the main drivers of deforestation and thus starting a “name and shame” campaign would be easier.

It’s a different story in others. Take the case of Colombia as an example.

Colombia has a lofty target of net zero deforestation by 2020. In November, it forged a partnership with TFA 2020 to “protect over 60 million hectares of Amazon rainforest within its borders from commodity-driven deforestation.”

But what causes deforestation in the Colombian forest is not necessarily driven by globally traded commodities. Most Amazonian products in Colombia are sold on the national market, which remains highly price sensitive and not yet as interested in deforestation reduction or sustainability as a purchasing criterion.  

Studies suggest that deforestation is due to a complex mix of factors. In some areas, cattle ranching may appear to be the cause. In reality, this is a way to claim ownership of the land, which “owners” intend to sell and thus profit from when the opportunity arises.

The supply chain approach also assumes that companies will not only commit but actually take ambitious actions to reduce deforestation. This is a big question mark.

Companies are first and foremost driven by their bottom lines. If it will mean profit, they will take action. If not, they may commit to taking steps but not bold enough to make a difference.

Companies may take action, but there’s the question of whether these contribute to stopping deforestation. There’s currently no mechanism to monitor and measure that contribution.

The supply chain approach likewise relies on efforts by companies. But combating deforestation requires government involvement, such as establishing policies, institutions, infrastructure, and incentives that will facilitate those efforts.

This is particularly true for Colombia. The country has just emerged from a 52-year armed conflict. The Colombian Amazon jungle hosts most conflict-affected areas, where public services and infrastructure remain lacking.  

In addition, in many regions in Colombia, agricultural value chains remain informal. For instance, a number of companies that process milk do not pay taxes, and therefore monitoring whether or not they follow sustainable manufacturing practices would be a challenge.

Achieving zero deforestation and low-carbon development, as such, means going beyond transforming supply chains. Colombia actually has a strategy that incorporates this approach and REDD+, which covers both policies and incentives to lower emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

What we’re proposing is a broader approach to zero deforestation and low-carbon development. This involves promoting sustainable agricultural practices, improving land use policies, and developing a sustainable food system.  

Sustainable food systems aim to create environment-friendly supply chains; support value chain actors to meet product quality, safety, and environmental standards; provide incentives that can lead to lower carbon emissions within the food system from production to food waste disposal; and promote responsible food consumption, among other features.

Even with concerted efforts by companies, government, and more, deforestation will continue to happen if the consumption of forest-risk commodities remains at the same level. To meet the demand, the same companies may opt to import those commodities, thus exacerbating deforestation across territories.

Deforestation will also continue if there is a lack of extension services that support efforts to deter agricultural expansion as well as curb practices and inputs that increase carbon emissions.

Although transforming supply chains has its advantages, it is not the magic pill to achieving zero deforestation and low-carbon development. We need to first understand the underlying causes of deforestation to determine the right incentives and conditions to get to that target. We need the government and other value chain actors to build the enabling environment to create those conditions. And we need a comprehensive approach that marries food supply and consumption with improved land use policies and management practices to create sustainable food systems.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Augusto Castro-Nuñez

    Augusto Castro-Nuñez is a researcher on sustainable food systems at CIAT and works to identify ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forestry and land uses, while promoting sustainable low-carbon food production. He was part of the Peruvian climate change negotiating team from 2009 to 2011 and designed the country’s REDD+ readiness strategy and related projects. He holds a PhD in Geography from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.
  • Marcela Quintero

    Marcela Quintero is the research theme leader on ecosystem services at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. Her core work experience has been on project formulation and implementation related to payments for ecosystem services schemes design, and environmental impacts produced by diverse land uses in Latin America. Recently she worked on environmental impacts and adoption determinants of conservation measures, including mixed crop-livestock systems and REDD+ projects.
  • Matthias Jäger

    Matthias Jäger is a value chain and marketing expert, who works on topics related to value chains for nutrition, sustainable food systems, low-emission value chains, and inclusive business models at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. Previously, he worked with Bioversity International and he served as a coordinator or consultant for numerous value chain development projects and studies funded by donors such as the European Commission, IADB, IFAD or GIZ.
  • Mark Lundy

    Mark Lundy is a senior scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. His work focuses on the role of markets in reducing rural poverty including learning networks to increase capacities for enterprise development, the role of public agencies to promote market access, and how to establish and sustain effective trading relationships between buyers and smallholder farmers. He is lead author of guides on rural enterprise development, the LINK method on inclusive business models, and an active participant in multistakeholder forums focused on sustainability and smallholder inclusion.