In response to a decade of debate around the role of the agriculture sector in protecting forests, many companies operating in, or sourcing from, tropical forest landscapes have adopted policies to eliminate deforestation from their operations and supply chains. Several tools that define what areas can be converted to plantations or industrial agriculture have been developed, including GHG emissions assessments, and High Conservation Values (HCV). However, many stakeholders believe that these tools are valuable, but that they do not fully address deforestation, and that there is a need for an approach that provides clearer guidance on which natural forest is to be protected and on how to implement a 'no deforestation' policy commitment while simultaneously respecting human rights and ensuring the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples and local communities.
The High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA) was developed to meet this need, using a combination of remote sensing analysis and field plots to identify areas that have vegetation classes with the structure, composition and density to maintain and restore themselves as natural forest ecosystems, as well as functioning as natural carbon stores and maintaining high levels of biodiversity. The HCSA also applies FPIC procedures and conservation planning tools to the identified HCS forest areas and combines with HCV, peatland and riparian areas to micro-delineate areas for conservation, restoration, community land, and/or areas potentially available for plantation development.
Since first being conceived in 2011 in a partnership between Golden Agri-Resources, Greenpeace and TFT, dozens of companies in the palm oil, pulp and paper and rubber sectors have applied or committed to using this approach. Members of the governing body of the HCSA, the HCS Approach Steering Group, now include corporate giants such as APP, Wilmar, Unilever, BASF and P&G, alongside global NGOs such as WWF, Rainforest Action Network and the Union of Concerned Scientists. This group provides oversight and governance of the HCS Approach to ensure its scientifically-grounded development and application in the field.
However, in 2015, the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto, a group consisting of major palm oil growers undertook to develop an alternative approach, which was supported by leading scientists, and which focused on addressing socio-economic concerns related to forest-set-asides, and on determining a carbon neutral approach towards development.
For many observers and stakeholders, the existence of two separate methodologies cause confusion, and have likely also provided slow movers with an excuse to avoid a No Deforestation commitment, using the classic excused of ‘disagreement among scientists’ to defer commitments.
So when the two approaches announced last week that they had, in fact, reached a convergence agreement, it may well have been a historic day for forest protection. Following a year of intensive work, the two groups agreed on a single, coherent set of principles for implementation of companies’ commitments to “no deforestation”.
The timing of this announcement is also critical. In 2018, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil will be updating its certification standard, the RSPO Principles and Criteria, and the review process will begin in 2017. With most leading palm oil companies now committed to the new unified HCS Approach, there is an opportunity to seek inclusion of HCS into the RSPO standard, making it mandatory for new oil palm developments. And if this can be achieved, the path may well become easier for the introduction of the HCSA into other commodity certification schemes, such as the Forest Stewardship Council or the Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative.
The road ahead is still fraught with challenges and complexities, particularly on issues such as highly forested landscapes with big development needs, as well as ensuring that HCS does not lead to smallholder exclusion. However, a big first step has been taken in truly creating joint action to prevent deforestation.