The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

The road to zero deforestation food

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Areas being cleared and replanted with oil palms in the Butaw plantation. Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO), is rapidly expanding its operations in Liberia and plans to clear tens of thousands of hectares of land to grow palm oil to sell in domestic markets and for export to Asia, Europe and the United States. The deforestation and land use change threatens the food security and livelihoods of local communities and will release large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere contributing to climate change that makes people hungry. (Photo: Anna Fawcus / Oxfam America)

To get to a deforestation free supply chains, food and beverage companies must strengthen protections for people who are living on the frontlines of the world’s forests.

It is back-to-school time. That means it’s also peanut butter and jelly sandwiches time – one of the most popular school lunches in America.  And what’s not to love about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?

Unfortunately, lurking in the bread and the peanut butter, and a whole host of other comfort foods we buy, are ingredients like palm oil, soy, and cocoa which are  driving deforestation around the world. The rapid expansion of the production of these commodities has not only led to the massive loss of carbon-rich forests but has also exacted a high human cost. In many instances, as production of these commodities has expanded into forests, communities have lost their land and faced violence and repression.

The good news is that over the past few years, several companies have pledged to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains.  Over 400 companies including several food and beverage giants have committed to zero-deforestation supply chains. However, getting to “zero” is easier said than done.

A new report – Pathways to Deforestation Free Food – released today by Oxfam, analyses how well the world’s ten biggest food and beverage brands and their key suppliers are doing on implementing their deforestation commitments. Each of the brands were challenged to improve their environmental and social policies as part of Oxfam’s Behind the Brands campaign.. The report highlights how the companies are addressing the impact of their supply chains on human rights, and outlines the steps they are taking to translate policies into practice.  Our analysis reveals that while companies are making some progress, they still have a long way to go.

To eliminate deforestation and any associated exploitation from the supply chains of the food and beverage sector and achieve real change on the ground, companies need to:

  1. Strengthen protections for indigenous people and communities impacted by commodity supply chains that are driving deforestation. A glaring gap in current company implementation is that none of those analyzed in Oxfam’s report have policies to ensure that human rights defenders are protected from threats, intimidation or attacks. Human rights defenders play a vital role in safeguarding the world’s natural resources, but in recent years, attacks and threats against these environmental defenders have escalated. In 2016 alone, over 200 people were killed for defending their land, forests and rivers. Moreover, none of the companies have policies to ensure small-scale farmers and workers in their supply chains can earn enough to afford a decent standard of living for themselves and their families.
  2. Back-up sourcing commitments with robust operational plans. Given how long and complex agricultural supply chains are, companies must better trace their supply chains back to their origin, which is where most of the environmental and human rights violations occur. Companies should track the policies and practices of their suppliers and proactively identify and address environmental and human rights risks, wherever they occur. However, few of the companies analysed trace their commodities to their origin (the farm or plantation), conduct human rights risk and impact assessments as per the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights; or disclose the percentage of their suppliers that are compliant with the company’s supplier code and sourcing policy.
  3. Invest in and advocate for inclusive and resilient land use. Companies need to go beyond their own supply chains and invest in supporting responsible and sustainable land use that conserves natural forests, strengthens the livelihoods and resilience of local communities, and ensures that indigenous peoples and local communities have secure land tenure.

Protecting the world’s forests and peatlands is critical to achieving the goals set out in the Paris climate agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. The world’s forests are vital carbon sinks, and unless they are conserved, and greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation are arrested, we will not be able to limit global temperature increase to the critical limit of 1.5-degree Celsius. In order to curb deforestation, companies need to build socially inclusive business models that conserve forests and strengthen the rights and livelihoods of the communities and indigenous peoples impacted by their operations.

A narrow focus on avoiding deforestation alone will not yield lasting results. Protecting the rights of local communities is one of the smartest and most cost-effective solutions to reduce deforestation. Considerable research shows that when communities have stronger rights over forests and secure land tenure, deforestation rates are significantly lower. In Guatemala for example, forests managed by communities experienced approximately 20 times less deforestation compared to other types of protected forests. Communities who live in and around forests are often its best stewards because their lives and livelihoods depend on it.

The zero deforestation commitments adopted by a broad range of private sector actors have set the stage for amplifying global efforts to stem the tide of deforestation. Getting to zero deforestation is possible. However, in order to get to “zero”, companies need to start seeing the people through the trees.

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