Extending the Success Against Illegal Logging to Palm Oil and Other Drivers of Deforestation

May 2, 2013 | 4:53 pm
Doug Boucher
Former Contributor

The week before last I had the opportunity to go to London to participate in a workshop at Chatham House, on an idea that may turn out to be very important in ending tropical deforestation. Over the past several years there has been important progress in reducing forest degradation, based on a simple principle: if it’s against the law to cut down trees in one country, then it should also be illegal to import the cut timber from those trees into other countries. In other words, we should respect and help enforce the laws that protect forests in the countries that we import from.

Chatham House, the home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, is located on a pleasant square in central London, and has a long and distinguished history. It was founded shortly after World War I after conversations among British and American delegates to the Paris Peace Conference, and has been hosting meetings and speeches by international leaders and experts for nearly a century.

Aung San Suu Kyi at Chatham House, June 2012

Burmese democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi at Chatham House in June 2012. SOURCE: Chatham House Annual Review 2011-2012, http://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/public/General/AR11-12.pdf

An aside: internationally, Chatham House is well known for the Chatham House Rule (I had always called it “Chatham House rules” but there’s just one.) It’s a principle for conducting meetings:

When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.

The value of the Rule is that, without keeping a meeting secret or totally off the record, you can nonetheless make the participants comfortable that they won’t get themselves in trouble by saying something stupid that later gets quoted on the front page of the Times. (of London, New York or anywhere else). The way I often explain it is: “you can tell people what was said, but not who said it.” It’s very useful in allowing people to relax and speak freely, without fear that they’ll embarrass themselves or their organization.

But Chatham House has done much more than establish a Rule. One area where it has had an important impact is on forest degradation – the damage to forests that comes from activities that don’t totally clear them (and thus are not “deforestation”) but do release global warming pollution. Selective logging, the most widespread type of logging in the tropics, is one of the main causes of forest degradation.

An important initiative in reducing degradation was the 2007 report by Chatham House Fellow Sam Lawson, Illegal Logging and Related Trade: Measuring the Global Response. This report and subsequent work by Lawson and Larry McFaul showed the scale of illegal logging globally, but also the potential of reducing it by preventing illegal timber from being imported into U.S., European and other markets. With the impetus given by these studies and strong advocacy and leadership by the Environmental Investigation Agency and its partners (including UCS), legislation was adopted in the U.S. (the Lacey Act Amendments of 2008), Europe (the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance & Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan and the EU Timber Regulation) and Australia (the Illegal Logging Prohibition Act 2012). These laws have only been in force for a few years, but recent Chatham House studies have shown that they have already had a substantial impact on the illegal timber trade.

So, could the same approach help to reduce deforestation, most of which is driven by commercial agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soybeans and beef? That was the subject of the Chatham House workshop in which I participated, and the general answer was yes, but with some changes. When large areas of tropical forest are cleared illegally – e.g. in violation of Brazil’s Forest Code or Indonesia’s Moratorium, or in protected areas such as national parks or indigenous reserves – the products produced on the cleared land could potentially be kept out of international trade. However legal modifications would be needed, and the difficulties in getting them adopted in the current political climate could be substantial.


A new plantation of oil palm, one of the main drivers of tropical deforestation today.SOURCE: Rhett Butler, Mongabay.com

Because of these challenges to apply the legality approach to agricultural commodities, two other alternative approaches were actively discussed as well: emphasizing trade in “deforestation-free” or in “certified sustainable” commodities. These take into account that some deforestation is perfectly legal, so the legality approach wouldn’t stop it.

“Deforestation-free” needs to be the ultimate goal for all involved – throughout the entire supply chain, from the field in a tropical country through the whole series of companies that buy, sell, distribute and process what’s produced, all the way to the final consumer (you!). Certification, such as by the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil, is one way to try to achieve it, but it often has fallen short. For example, palm oil can come from plantations cut out of tropical rain forest or established on carbon-rich peat soils, and yet still be RSPO-certified. Corporate standards have to go beyond the certification of an often vaguely defined and voluntarily enforced “sustainability”, and companies such as Nestlé are already doing that.

Various governments and businesses are already committed to one or the other of these alternatives, so we should see further progress in reducing deforestation and forest degradation in years to come. Already, much has been done in some tropical countries, but there’s still a lot left to do.