The ‘Zero Deforestation’ debate: Forest Peoples, ‘High Conservation Values’ and ‘High Carbon Stocks’

The ‘Zero Deforestation’ debate: Forest Peoples, ‘High Conservation Values’ and ‘High Carbon Stocks’

Global calls to curb forest loss have taken on an added urgency in the light of renewed efforts to combat climate change. The statistics are clear: rapid land use change is a significant cause of emissions of global warming gases. In some tropical forest counties, like Indonesia, land clearance for oil palm and pulpwood plantations is causing massive emissions from trashed forests and drained peat-swamps. Per capita emissions from Indonesia rival those of many developed countries. So it makes sense to slow down forest loss.

Over the past year or two and in response to intense advocacy, a long list of companies have made public pledges to cease dealing in products that ‘embody deforestation’. The details vary a lot and these pledges are being made by producers, traders, manufacturers and investors. There are three main puzzles. Since these are voluntary pledges and not legal requirements, how are they to be implemented, monitored and enforced? Who will pay the extra costs implied in changing production systems? How will these ‘zero deforestation’ commitments address the rights and livelihoods of forest peoples?

Obviously Forest Peoples Programme and its partners have been especially concerned about the latter question but another more basic challenge is to reach consensus on what ‘Zero Deforestation’ actually means. What, indeed, is a ‘forest’? History teaches us that originally the term ‘forest’ was an area set aside as a Royal hunting reserve and subject to forestry laws, one of the most controversial effects of which was to extinguish or restricted the rights of prior occupants and land users (‘forest peoples’). This legal meaning of forests - as jurisdictions, areas subject to forestry laws - remains the norm in most countries. Yet although this is the law, many people are still surprised to learn that ‘forests’ may not be covered by trees, even though this has always been the case. Hunting reserves often embraced heathlands, meadows, savannahs and scrubland as well as woodlands. It is the way forestry laws impose restrictions on forest peoples’ rights and give preferential access to elites - today industrial enterprises not kings – that is a focus of FPP’s advocacy. 

In common parlance, the word ‘forest’ has taken on the ecological meaning of an area covered by trees. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines a forest as any area with more than 10% tree cover, a definition which includes many kinds of plantations (and some leafy cities!). For some forest campaigners, a ‘plantation is not a forest’, by which they mean an area of natural vegetation covered with native tree species. One recent review found some 1,500 definitions of ‘forest’!

To avoid being stalled by semantics, in earlier rounds of voluntary pledging through bodies such as the Forest Stewardship Council and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, companies committed themselves not to clear areas of ‘High Conservation Values’ (HCVs). The HCV system seeks ensure that enough lands are set aside to ‘maintain or enhance’ six values – rare, threatened and endangered species, vital ecosystems and landscapes, critical environmental services, areas needed to maintain people’s basic needs and cultural identity. A network has evolved aimed at ensuring the HCV system is applied adequately, through adopting clear definitions, operating principles, developing best practice guidance and requiring a quality assurance system. Unfortunately, exactly because these are voluntary not regulated procedures, too many HCV assessments continue to be poorly done and often fail to secure communities livelihoods.

The latest concept designed to ensure adequate set-asides of forest is the ‘High Carbon Stock Approach’ (HCS), initially conceived by Greenpeace and The Forest Trust and adopted first by oil palm giant Golden Agri-Resources and then its sister pulpwood company Asia Pulp and Paper. The concept is now being widely adopted as the practical way of identifying which are the forests that must not be cleared to meet ‘Zero Deforestation’ pledges. Initially, as FPP and local partner TUK-Indonesia found, HCS was applied without taking into account community rights and livelihoods. Now efforts are being made to integrate HCV and HCS methods and ensure that both respect communities’ land rights and are only applied subject to their free, prior and informed consent. Meanwhile a parallel Science Study is elaborating another notion of High Carbon Stocks sponsored by mainly Malaysian palm oil companies and Unilever through the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto. This is also looking carefully at the social implications of applying the HCS concept.

So the good news is that most ‘No Deforestation’ methods nod in the direction of securing communities’ rights. The bad news is these approaches lack legal frameworks within to be effective. Most ‘Zero Deforestation’ pledges and the HCS Approach don’t yet have complaints mechanisms by which communities can hold companies if they fail to secure communities’ rights. Yet as soon as companies, NGOs and government meet together on the ground to discuss what is needed to make ‘Zero Deforestation’ pledges a reality, they admit this is exactly what is needed.