Why voluntary policies will not stop deforestation


Fires and deforestation in Rondonia, Brazil Photo: Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon NASA Earth Observatory

By Sam Lawson, Founder and Director of Earthsight

In recent years, ‘zero deforestation’ promises by companies have taken centre stage in the global battle to halt forest loss. Under pressure from campaigning organisations, a steady stream of large firms involved in producing, trading or consuming forest-risk commodities like palm oil, beef and paper have committed to end all association with deforestation by a given date in the future.

Many of those involved in trying to halt deforestation are now focusing the majority of their time on this approach. They are pushing for more companies to sign up, helping companies to implement their policies, or trying to monitor progress and compliance. The rapidity with which so many major companies signed up took many by surprise, and these commitments have rightly been applauded as an important step.  However, on their own these commitments are never going to stop deforestation, even if they are implemented. And there is a danger that they are distracting attention and diverting resources away from the actions that are needed instead.

Why the corporate ‘zero deforestation’ movement will not work

Why won’t they work? For a start, they are only ever going to capture a certain proportion of the market for each relevant commodity. There will always be companies who don’t sign up, and there will be more than enough of those companies to keep up the expansion of these commodities into new forest areas and to buy the products grown on that land. The easiest way for the ‘zero deforestation’ companies to comply will be to focus their purchases on land already developed, while expansion falls to others. It is telling that of the three largest new greenfield plantations under development in the ‘new frontier’ for palm oil in the Congo Basin, two are being developed by new entrants to the sector. Both have shown scant regard for legality, let alone sustainability.

“There is a danger they are distracting attention and diverting resources away from the actions that are needed instead”

The second reason they won’t work is the widespread illegality and lack of good governance associated with the opening up of new land for these commodities in nearly all of the major source countries. Corruption, lack of transparency and unclear and conflicting regulations are already making it hard for companies to implement their promises.

And all this is assuming that all these companies act in good faith, and fulfil their promises. Yet this is unlikely. The history of corporate campaigning on deforestation is littered with promising commitments which were never implemented. The number of new commitments and their scope is far exceeding the capacity of watchdog organisations to meaningfully monitor, and such monitoring is made much more difficult because none of the companies is being sufficiently transparent about their supply chains.

“The history of corporate campaigning on deforestation is littered with promising commitments which were never implemented”

Even Wilmar, the zero deforestation company which has gone furthest in terms of transparency, doesn’t provide anything like as much information as third parties need in order to be able to meaningfully check whether the company is abiding by its commitments. Aside from the small proportion of purchases which come from its own plantations, it only provides supply chain information back to the nearest primary processing mill, not the source plantation. Even for its own plantations, only a single GPS location is given. No concession boundaries, let alone relevant permits and licenses. Most zero deforestation companies don’t provide anything at all.


Though a number of NGOs have produced reports and websites which claim to track progress of companies in meeting their zero deforestation commitments, they don’t really do anything of the sort. While a handful of genuine individual exposes have also been published, there is no systematic monitoring going on, so it is impossible to say to what extent such cases are bad apples, or the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Without much greater transparency, investigative NGOs will only ever be able to pursue a tiny number of cases at any time.
“Corruption, lack of transparency and unclear and conflicting regulations are already making it hard for companies to implement their promises”

Un-mandated amnesties

Another major problem with the zero deforestation movement is that it has a very short memory. All of the commitments relate to what companies do in the future. None relate to what they have done in the past. There is a case to be made that compromise is needed, and that forgiveness of past wrongs is a price worth paying if it buys better behaviour in future. But when it comes to illegalities, such an attitude is very problematic.

Take the example of Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), notorious for being among the leading companies behind Indonesian deforestation over the last 20 years. Though the company claims it will no longer produce pulp made from tropical wood fiber (and therefore is already ‘zero deforestation’), the plantation-grown acacia it now uses instead is grown on land that is likely to have been illegally cleared. These are not minor infractions. In 2014, the former governor of Riau province in Indonesia was jailed for 14 years for the illegal issuance of permits to nine companies, all of them suppliers to APP (Mongabay 2014). One of the presiding judges noted that since “it has already been proven that the companies that received [the permits] profited from criminal corruption, then these corporations are directly involved in these crimes” and recommended an anti-corruption case should be brought against them. But no such investigation was ever launched, and the permits have never been revoked. There is plentiful evidence of other serious illegalities in the development of the monoculturetimber plantations which previously supplied APP with tropical conversion wood and now supply it with plantation-grown acacia. Yet now the paper made from that acacia is considered perfectly acceptable. Similar issues are found with beef and palm oil. The ‘zero deforestation’-type commitment by the largest meat packers in the Brazilian Amazon (the G4 Cattle Agreement) does not preclude purchases of cattle from areas illegally deforested prior to 2009, except where that illegal deforestation has been detected by the authorities.

“On what mandate do these companies and international campaigning groups decide that past illegalities can be ignored?

Global corporations make these policies up for themselves, sometimes with input from international NGOs. The same NGOs line up alongside donors to lavish the companies with praise. All good PR. But based on what mandate do these companies and these international campaigning groups decide that past illegalities can be ignored? In most cases, there has been no official amnesty declared by any elected government. And it does not appear that affected communities were given a say, despite it having been their land stolen, their livelihoods destroyed. Forgiveness may be required, but there must be some restitution in return, and the nature of that restitution needs to be decided in a just and democratic manner.

What actions are needed instead?

But now, ironically, I am being distracted myself. It doesn’t really matter that the zero deforestation commitments cannot be monitored and might not be implemented. It doesn’t really matter if they fail to stop deforestation. What matters is that they threaten to distract from the actions that are really needed. So what are those actions?

There are two things which are proven to help reduce tropical deforestation: improved governance, and the recognition and protection of the rights of local people over forests. The largest success story in the history of tropical deforestation is the Brazilian Amazon, where deforestation fell by 70 per cent between 2004 and 2012. Studies have attributed most of the early decline to the issuance of rights over large tracts of forest to indigenous groups (Soares-Filho et al. 2010), while from 2008 onwards, actions by the government to tackle illegal deforestation were the most important factor (Arima et al. 2014). The latter was not confined to increased and improved enforcement, but also included a broader range of actions to improve forest governance, including amendments to regulations to make it easier to prevent, identify and prosecute illegalities (Lawson 2014). As for giving communities rights over forests, recent studies have shown that this is a more effective means of maintaining forest cover than declaring areas as national parks (Porter-Bolland et al 2012).

Ultimately, tropical deforestation can only be halted through action by governments. In terms of improving governance and tackling illegality, actions needed will be country specific, but in most cases this will need to include more and better enforcement, improvements and clarifications of relevant laws, increased transparency of relevant information, and a means of addressing past illegalities. Though the bulk of the actions will need to come from the governments of the countries where the deforestation occurs, governments of those countries which import the relevant commodities also have an important role to play. Past efforts to tackle the related problem of illegal timber have shown how powerful such actions can be. Both the US and the EU have banned the import of wood which was illegally sourced in the country of origin, while the EU has also been working bilaterally with many of the worst affected countries to help tackle the problem. Studies have shown that such efforts have helped reduce illegal timber trade (Lawson 2015), and have also improved key elements of underlying forest governance (Jonsson et al. 2015). Similar actions are needed in relation to production and trade of forest-risk commodities like palm oil, beef and soy.

“Ultimately, tropical deforestation can only be halted through action by governments”

The corporate zero deforestation movement threatens to distract from these efforts, and even threatens to give the impression to the highest-level decision makers that tropical deforestation is on its way to being solved. This could not be farther from the truth. Rather than distract from it, it is essential that the zero deforestation movement is harnessed to push for the necessary actions by governments. The multinational corporations making these commitments have massive lobbying resources and huge influence. If they really want to halt deforestation, they must use that power to push for government action.


Mongabay.com. 2014. “Indonesia Politician Gets 14 Years in Jail for Illegal Permits, Forest Corruption.” Mongabay.com, March 13. http://news.mongabay.com/2014/0313-dparker-zainal-corruption-riau.html?n3ws1ttr

Soares-Filho, Britaldo, Paulo Moutinho, Daniel Nepstad, Anthony Anderson, Hermann Rodrigues, Ricardo Garcia, Laura Dietzsch, Frank Merry, Maria Bowman, Letícia Hissa, Rafaella Silvestrini, and Cláudio Maretti. 2010. “Role of Brazilian Amazon Protected Areas in Climate Change Mitigation.” PNAS 107 (24):10821-10826. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0913048107

Arima, Eugenio Y., Paulo Barreto, Elis Araújo, and Britaldo Soares-Filho. 2014. “Public Policies Can Reduce Tropical Deforestation: Lessons and Challenges from Brazil.” Land Use Policy 41: 465–473. doi: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2014.06.026.

Lawson, S. 2014. Consumer Goods and Deforestation: An Analysis of the Extent and Nature of Illegality in Forest Conversion for Agriculture and Timber Plantations. Forest Trends, September 2014. http://www.forest-trends.org/documents/files/doc_4718.pdf

Porter-Bolland, L.; Ellis, E.A.; Guariguata, M.R.; Ruiz-Mallén, I.; Negrete-Yankelevich, S.; Reyes-García, V. 2012. Community managed forests and forest protected areas: An assessment of their conservation effectiveness across the tropics. Forest Ecology and Management 268: 6-17. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378112711003215

Lawson, S. 2015. The Lacey Act’s Effectiveness in Reducing Illegal Wood Imports. Union of Concerned Scientists

Jonsson, R. et al. 2015. Assessment of the EU Timber Regulation and FLEGT Action Plan. EFI.

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