Sunday, 14 September 2014

Eco-imperialism, zero-deforestation and palm oil

A heading in the Times last week looked rather disconcerting:

‘Let poor countries cut down forests’

Prince Charles decries deforestation, but his green adviser says it is vital NGN

Ben Webster Environment Editor
Published at 12:01AM, September 4 2014

Millions of acres of tropical forest should be cut down to allow poor countries to expand their economies, according to a leading environmentalist and adviser to the Prince of Wales.

Sir Jonathon Porritt, who advises the Prince on green issues and is a former chairman of the Green party, said that conservationists from rich countries who demanded the preservation of all forests were guilty of “eco-imperialism”.

‘Let poor countries cut down forests’ | The Times

Interestingly, the campaigning group Avaaz has pointed out how 'eco-imperialism' has been behind the creation of many of Africa's 'national parks':

Tanzania ditches plan to evict Masai for Serengeti 
'wildlife corridor'

Activists claim victory as plan to annex 1,500 sq km bordering national park to benefit UAE-based luxury safari firm dropped

David Smith, Africa correspondent

theguardian.com, Monday 7 October 2013 16.38 BST
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Migrating wildebeest in Serengeti, Tanzania. The plan would have evicted 40,000 Masai pastoralists to make way for a hunting reserve for Dubai's royal family. Photograph: Getty

Activists have claimed victory in a campaign to stop Tanzania evicting 40,000 Masai pastoralists from their ancestral land to make way for a big game hunting reserve for Dubai's royal family. Government officials had planned to annex 1,500 sq km bordering the Serengeti national park for a "wildlife corridor" that would benefit a luxury hunting and safari company based in the United Arab Emirates.

But campaigners said ministers dropped the scheme after visiting the Masai, who complained that their livestock would be cut off from vital grazing pasture, as well as 18 months of co-ordinated protests that included a global petition signed by more than 1.7 million people.

Samwel Nangiria, co-ordinator of the local Ngonett civil society group, said Tanzanian prime minister Mizengo Pinda spent two and a half days with the Masai in Loliondo district late last month. "The Masai said we cannot lose this land at any cost – this land has been ours for centuries. The conclusion was that government has turned down the plan to evict tens of thousands of Masai. It's a big success story, not only for the Masai in Loliondo but also in Tanzania and east Africa."

The international effort was led by the online activism site Avaaz.org, whose Stop the Serengeti Sell-off petition attracted 1,775,320 signatures and led to targeted email and Twitter protests. It argued that the Masai would be robbed of their livelihoods if their land was used for the commercial hunting of prize game such as leopards and lions by UAE royals.

Sam Barratt, a spokesman for Avaaz, said: "It's been amazing. The government did all it could to stop this becoming a national story but I think the confidence of the Masai has grown and grown. We helped get it out internationally and it was tremendously successful." He added: "This is a nomadic tribe thousands of years old that lives by ancient traditions, but modern technology unlocked their cause to the world."

Tanzania ditches plan to evict Masai for Serengeti 'wildlife corridor' | World news | theguardian.com
Avaaz - Highlights

Back to Jonathon Porritt and cutting down trees or not:

What does ‘Zero Deforestation’ mean to you?

This is not a trick question.  But it sure as hell is a tricky question!  As evidenced by a very mischievous article by Ben Webster in The Times today, making out that I had just launched a new campaign to cut down what’s left of the world’s rainforests just as quickly as possible!
What I was actually launching was the High Carbon Stock Study, whose Steering Committee I co-chair. Like all clever journos, Ben Webster is very smart at culling out quotes from the context in which they were uttered, and then using them in isolation as tendentiously as possible.  So, true enough, I did indeed say ‘let poor countries cut down forests’, but with so many caveats and qualifications as to provide a very different conclusion from the one you may have drawn from the headline alone.
Back to ‘zero deforestation’.  At one level, the meaning is simple: not one area of existing forest to be cut down. Anywhere. For any reason. Ever. Splendidly cut-and-dried - but not terribly smart, and completely unworkable.
Or it could mean: ‘zero deforestation in areas of high biological diversity and high carbon stocks’ - in other words, areas with significant amounts of carbon stored away in the trees themselves and in the soil beneath the forests.  And even then, no deforestation without the active consent of local communities and indigenous people who depend on those forests.
As it happens, that’s what most people already mean by ‘zero deforestation’.  But such a long-winded definition doesn’t really lend itself to provocative headline-mongering!
Which brings us to the debate about palm oil.  The above approach is the one which the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil has been gradually building a consensus around for the last 12 years.  It has made very good progress on the biodiversity challenge (defined as ‘forests of High Conservation Value’, which all the major palm oil producers are now committed to keeping off-limits); reasonably good progress on the local consent challenge (captured under the ‘Free, Prior and Informed Consent’ clauses in the RSPO’s Principles and Criteria); more modest progress on protecting peat (areas of land which store away vast amounts of carbon); but very little progress at all on High Carbon Stock.
And this has led to a lot of frustration - on all sides.  So a few years back, an NGO called The Forest Trust (TFT) got together with one of the big palm oil producers (Golden Agri Resources) and Greenpeace to try to define what constitutes High Carbon Stock: where should the line by drawn in terms of forests that must be put off-limits (in the same way that High Conservation Value forest is put off limits), and forests that it’s ok to develop on.
(Note the rather important implication here: that there will indeed be some forests that it’s OK to develop palm oil on, so not an absolutist ‘zero deforestation’ approach).
It was a useful piece of work - but its conclusions as to where to draw that line did not command the support of the rest of the industry, there was little chance to peer-review it, and no government was involved in thinking through how best to implement such an approach.  Stalemate all over again.
At which point, Unilever (the world’s biggest user of palm oil, and therefore keener than anyone to see this vexed issue sorted) invited four big palm oil producers to sign up to a new set of commitments as part of the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto.  They were subsequently joined by Wilmar and Cargill.
These commitments included the decision to fund a new study, both to provide a more comprehensive, wide-ranging set of guidelines on where to draw that line, and to reflect on the socio-economic implications of different High Carbon Stock thresholds.  A Steering Committee (of which I’m the co-chair) was set up to coordinate that study; some very eminent scientists have already been recruited onto a Technical Committee to appoint the researchers who will do the actual work; and we have undertaken to get it all done in a year.
At the same time, TFT, Greenpeace, and other NGOs have set up a parallel process to peer-review the original study, as well as to keep an eye on our Steering Committee. There simply wasn’t enough trust between the palm oil companies and the NGOs to bring everybody together in one process, which was very disappointing.  But we intend to work as collaboratively with them as we can along the way.
It’s not going to be easy, especially when one gets down to country level. Take Liberia, for example.  This is a country where both Golden Agri Resources and Sime Darby (one of the signatories to the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto, and a partner of Forum for the Future) have large palm oil concessions.  All the HCV forests on those concessions have already been identified and set aside, and after a faltering start, the ‘Free, Prior and Informed Consent’ process is now being implemented in all areas ear-marked for development.
But there is - as yet -  no industry-accepted definition of High Carbon Stock, and no government policy on High Carbon Stock.  So it’s unclear at the moment how much more land will need to be set aside.
So what I was pointing out to Ben Webster was just how complex this whole story is.  There are some who believe that Liberia is such an inherently corrupt country that there should be no investment in it by foreign companies - despite it being one of the poorest countries in the world and desperate for the kind of development that helps create both wealth and jobs.  Others are content that there should indeed be some palm oil development - but only if all the best practice commitments are not just signed up to but implemented in practice on the ground.
But Ben Webster doesn’t really do complexity.  Hence his less than subtle attempt to portray me -  somewhat improbably! - as the new Deforester-in-Chief.
Image credits:
  • Homepage image (altered): Garden State Hiker, under this license
What does ‘Zero Deforestation’ mean to you? | Forum for the Future

See also:
Futures Forum: Singapore smog and palm oil

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