In February 2011 Golden Agri Resources, Indonesia’s largest producer of palm oil, launched an ambitious Forest Conservation Policy. After years of campaigning by Greenpeace and pressure from some of the largest buyers of palm oil for consumer products, like Nestle and Unilever, the plantation company took the important decision to be the first of Indonesia’s large palm oil producers to address the deforestation that its operations were causing.
Peat Swamp Forest in Sumatra © Kemal Jufri / Greenpeace
Golden Agri-Resources (GAR) made a strong commitment to have a no deforestation footprint and to protect High Carbon Stock forests (HCS). Today GAR explained what this means in practice and how they will protect the forests in their estates .
Most so-called progressive companies, often members of the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), only protect forests with High Conservation Values (HCV) in their concessions. In addition to many HCV assessments being poorly conducted, companies also do not have to protect all forest in their concessions, only primary forests, or for example areas where certain rare species live or those with social importance. For example, if a company had a 15,000 hectare concession, half of which was covered with forest, they would maybe only have to agree to protect 3,000 hectares. I use the word ‘agree’ because the RSPO is only a voluntary commitment.
Most forests in Sumatra and Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, where the majority of Indonesia’s oil palm expansion has been taking place, are not primary forests any more after years of (often illegal) logging and other disturbance. The conversion of these degraded or secondary forests to plantations still causes huge greenhouse gas emissions, exacerbating climate change.
If left alone, these forests could regenerate into rainforests full of life, again capable of providing habitat for a huge diversity of plants and animals. I have been in meetings where I would show images of bulldozers trashing rich and beautiful rainforests, and the plantation companies would ask: “is it a primary forest or an HCV? No, OK, than we can clear it.”
Unfortunately that’s the logic of the RSPO, and it will not save Indonesia’s rainforests or curb the massive amount of emissions from deforestation.
So, why is what GAR doing so different?
GAR has made a commitment to a no deforestation footprint: no more conversion of forests into oil palm plantations, including the degraded or secondary forests that are inside their concessions. The question then is how to define forest areas for protection? When is a forest so disturbed that it will not regenerate if left undisturbed? In other words, which areas are so degraded that they can be converted into an oil palm plantation without a great impact to the climate or biodiversity?
To identify these areas, the High Carbon Stock approach has been developed: the HCS areas are forests which store a lot of carbon that would be released if converted into a plantation and contain biodiversity values. GAR, together with The Forest Trust and Greenpeace, has developed a methodology to separate vegetation into different levels and measure the amount of carbon being stored in different vegetation types.
On the basis of this vegetation classification a clear distinction can be made between regenerating forests and young trees and shrubs. The next step was to devise a process and develop a plan for protection of these areas. Crucial to this process is the role of local communities and governments.
Local communities need to be fully involved in the identification of areas that should be protected. Forest conservation and development need to go hand in hand, and the Forest Conservation policy aims to provide livelihoods to local communities while protecting forested areas.
Another challenge is the support from local governments. While there are no adequate laws and regulations that protect forests and peatlands in Indonesia, local governments need to be convinced to support these voluntary initiatives. Meanwhile, it is crucial that the government of Indonesia strengthens its laws and enforcement measures to protect forests, and extends the current moratorium on concessions in forested areas.
This initiative is critical for breaking the link between palm oil and deforestation. Now the rest of the industry, including the RSPO and its members need to follow GAR’s lead. If the palm oil industry seriously wants to erase the bad reputation it has acquired among consumers and financial institutions, it needs to become clear which plantation companies are truly committed to protecting Indonesia’s remaining forests, and which will continue the destructive practices that have unfortunately given the industry such a bad name.
Bustar Maitar is Head of Greenpeace South East Asia’s Indonesia Forest Campaign