Dispatch from Innovation Forum: Smallholders, Supply Chains and Deforestation


13959220848_3681013e10_oBy Richard Donovan, SVP & VP of Forestry and Samantha St. Pierre, Manager, Markets Transformation, the Rainforest Alliance

Innovation Forum Publishing has been hosting “PowerPoint free,” debate-driven meetings addressing deforestation in supply chains since 2014, attended by leading businesses and NGOs.  The most recent event on “How Business Can Tackle Deforestation” was held in Washington D.C. in early April with about a hundred participants, including Rainforest Alliance’s Richard Donovan, SVP & VP of Forestry and Samantha St. Pierre, Manager, Markets Transformation.

Agenda topics spanning the two-day event ranged from the UN Sustainable Development Goals to how companies and NGOs can collaborate (what works and what doesn’t) to how companies can engage in jurisdictional approaches for addressing supply chain challenges. The latter session was led by Richard with Frances Seymour from the Center for Global Development.  While there were the common themes that you would expect to find at a gathering of this sort — supplier survey fatigue, how to satisfy campaigning NGOs — a theme emerged on the challenge of engaging smallholders within the supply chain on sustainability and land management, particularly for palm oil, but also cocoa, coffee and timber.

Who exactly are these smallholders and what are the challenges?  Supply chains often include a significant portion of supply originating from smallholders, including individuals or families operating a plantation or managing land that is typically 50 hectares or less.  In palm oil, for example, smallholders represent production of about 40% of the world’s palm oil supply; for rubber, which is an often-forgotten cause of deforestation in SE Asia and parts of Africa, this number is over 85%.

There are numerous challenges to working with smallholders, but they all seem to carry a similar root cause: the need to improve land management by implementing sustainability practices while ensuring that the livelihoods of those working the land are protected and improved over time.  One example is improving yield on lands already deforested to produce crops, thereby preventing additional deforestation driven by increasing demand for arable land.   Often the opportunity to improve yield exists, but smallholders need financing for better seeds or other inputs, and additional support and training to attain conservation objectives.

Discussion also addressed the social dynamics around deforestation – the “people” part of the equation.  One panel member challenged companies to shift from focusing first on the environmental side and only belatedly on the social side.  Social interventions include recruiting individuals (or groups) in the impacted communities to be champions for stopping deforestation. This requires resources and constant effort, which could include compensation for past abuses, access to tools and financing for improved farming, and training to support budding local enterprises.  Key is for companies to build long lasting relationships with those most at risk, and several panelists emphasized that successful engagement takes time and often requires a major change in practice by companies in how they address smallholders and local communities.

Finally, various speakers referred to what they see as a promising new collaborative effort called the Accountability Framework Initiative to establish common definitions, norms, and good practices for delivering on companies’ ethical supply chain commitments, including those addressing deforestation.  The growing alliance of leading environmental and social NGOs in consultation with private companies, government, and other stakeholders is together creating a framework of consistent guidance on how to address issues including social (e.g. use of FPIC or free, prior and informed consent techniques) and environmental (e.g. management of High Carbon Stock forests – HCS, or High Conservation Values – HCVs).

What was clear at the Innovation Forum meeting is there is no lack of work to do in tackling deforestation. Every company and country faces a different mix of issues and the recipe for success will evolve.  As Rainforest Alliance sees it, the many business commitments to address deforestation and sustainability in supply chains is potentially transformative globally, and if we bring to the issue the passion, vigor and energy seen at the Innovation Forum, real and meaningful progress is possible.


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