Are we actually making progress on preventing deforestation? Q&A with Mongabay.com founder Rhett Butler

Rhett Butler, founder, Mongabay.com. And yes, he does give a damn 
If you don't read Mongabay.com then you should. It's an excellent, independent site on rainforests and has covered the deforestation debate for many years.

I was in Indonesia with Rhett Butler, its founder, a few months back, looking at APP concessions (slideshow here). I found Rhett incredibly knowledgeable and learned a huge amount in a few days from him. Mongabay also accepts donations, so take a look here.

(We're donating 10% of the net profits of the first of our annual business/NGO summits on preventing deforestation (Oct 28-29 in London, details here) to Mongabay.com)

I asked Rhett for his views this week on a number of the key issues surrounding business and the prevention of deforestation, including campaigning NGOs, his responses are below, and are well worth a read.

TW: You've run a environmental reporting and news for many years, today, broadly speaking, are you an optimist or a pessimist on the environment?

RB: I'm generally optimistic that we're moving toward addressing a number key environmental issues. I specifically focus on forests, where there may be better progress than in other areas.

For example, Brazil's deforestation rate has fallen dramatically in the past decade due to a combination of factors, including policy interventions, pressure from environmentalists, stepped up law enforcement, technology, new protected areas, and private sector initiatives.

There are new initiatives that are greatly expanding our capacity to monitoring forests, while there is growing awareness of the environmental costs of business-as-usual practices.

Finally there has been a wave of zero deforestation commitments from companies that provides new leverage in addressing drivers of forest destruction.

TW: Mongabay.com has followed the deforestation debate for a long time. But despite progress, regulation and enforcement of basic law still lags, so are we just seeing a thin layer of top brands making commitments, or does suggesting that underestimate their power to change the industry?

RB: In many countries the private sector effectively drives regulation and enforcement. For example in Indonesia, decades of lobbying by big forestry companies have led to massive land grabs, sky-high deforestation rates, and large-scale degradation.

But now that some of the largest players are adopting forest-friendly policies - a product of pressure from their customers and environmentalists - they are starting to push for better law enforcement and policies that will incentivise them to become better forest stewards.

After all they don't want to disadvantage themselves by being the only ones with sustainability commitments - they want to benefit from their leadership positon.

At the same time, commodity roundtables like the RSPO are setting standards that may establish best practices and influence local regulations.

The private sector - especially market leaders - generally moves faster than the government. But regulation is important to push the marginal players, who often cause the most environmental damage, toward more sustainable practices. The laggards aren't going to care about sustainability unless they are compelled to do so.

TW: What's your view on consumers? We know they care, they are interested, but struggle with the complexity, as does labeling. Is it just about brands building trust with consumers or do you believe they can and will make a difference in their purchasing habits, one day?

RB: Right now I think consumer preference is second to brand risk.

Most consumers aren't aware of the issues to the extent where it affects their buying preferences, except in particularly egregious cases (views toward palm oil might be getting close to this threshold in some markets). But most companies are nonetheless very aware of the risks.

The market is very competitive and buyers can be fickle so if committing to more responsible sourcing doesn't break the bank - and may even have other benefits like streamlining operations or reducing contamination risk - then it can make a lot of sense for companies.

 TW: You've met the big forestry companies around the world, you've met their suppliers and documented their efforts, negative, and positive, on deforestation issues. APP has done a deal with Greenpeace. APRIL is still arguing. Meanwhile firms such as Wilmar seem to be making 'game changing' commitments. Are you convinced by their, and APP's efforts to date, and what is your view on APRIL and their ongoing spat with NGOs?

It's been really interesting to watch the zero deforestation policies emerge and evolve over the past 2-3 years.

APP's was perhaps the most shocking for me, but so far, the commitment looks strong. There are lots of signs that APP is serious this time, as opposed to past false starts.

That doesn't seem to be the case yet with APRIL, which has lately employed some of the questionable approaches APP used before its big commitment in February 2013.

Wilmar's policy is incredibly ambitious. It could really be a game-changer for the palm oil sector.

5) Do campaigning NGOs spend too much time on brands and not enough on Governments and legal enforcement/policy creation?

To generalise, campaign groups like Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network focus more on brands because they are more responsive targets than governments.

Companies have the will and capacity to move quickly especially when their reputation is at stake. Legislation and policy enforcement are slower processes.

The added upside is that once a company tips, it might become an advocate - directly or indirectly - for the policies being pushed by the green group. So that might lead to law enforcement or policy change.

Exposing an especially bad actor can also spur a government to take legal action or clean up loopholes.

For example, Indonesia has cracked down on companies after environmentalists or the media has put a spotlight on damaging activities.

In Brazil, Greenpeace's soy, cattle and timber campaigns have been followed by action by public prosecutors.

6) One of the key areas in tackling deforestation seems to be agreement about how to calculate High Carbon Stock land versus non high carbon stock land. Do you see this debate being resolved any time soon?

The fact that the debate is happening at all is an encouraging sign. I wouldn't have imagined five years ago discussions of this nature taking place.

Whether progress is being made is a fair question. In my view, I think the fact that there is actually work being done on this front by the biggest players in the pulp and palm oil sectors is an indication that companies are taking the issue seriously.

I'm not close enough to the process to predict when the Palm Oil Innovation Group camp and the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto group of companies are going to be able to harmonize their standards.

But in the meantime, it seems likely that campaigns are going to continue to pressure the APRILs and IOIs as long as they continue clearing high carbon stock areas.

Undefined commitments to cease clearing once an HCS standard is in place won't be enough for Greenpeace, RAN, and others.

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Some further reading from this blog on the topic of deforestation is here.

Upcoming Innovation Forum events in 2014:

How business can tackle deforestation
Collaborate effectively with suppliers and NGOs, understand policy and enforcement trends (sponsored by Robertsbridge

28th-29th October, 2014, London. More details here.

How to effectively engage stakeholders in frontier markets (emerging markets)
An exclusive two-day executive training workshop, certified by the CSR Training Institute
30-31 October, 2014, London. More details here.

Business and human rights
How to get beyond policy, manage risk and build relationships
10 November, 2014, London. More details here.
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