‘High Carbon Stocks Forests’: challenges in implementation

‘High Carbon Stocks Forests’: challenges in implementation

In response to consumer pressure to eliminate deforestation from products on supermarket shelves, corporations have been making numerous ‘Zero Deforestation’ pledges, often accompanied by ‘Zero Exploitation’ commitments. These companies seek to ensure that products in their ‘supply chains’ do not ‘embody deforestation’ and are not linked to land grabs and abuse of human and labour rights. These commitments are welcome but raise numerous questions: what do they require in practice and how can companies’ performance be verified?

One answer was developed by Greenpeace and The Forests Trust in 2011-2012 with Asia Pulp and Paper and Golden Agri Resources. However, the pilots were weak in addressing rights [1 / 2] but the method has since been re-launched as the High Carbon Stocks Approach, and now has a multi-stakeholder body to oversee its implementation. FPP joined this group and seeks to improve how the system respects rights and secures livelihoods. HCS Approach has published a ToolKit and seeks to integrate HCS with High Conservation Value identification and management and with measures to respect local communities’ rights to their lands and to give or withhold their Free, Prior and Informed Consent. However, independent mechanisms are still evolving, to ensure that HCS zoning is done consistently by companies and consultants (‘Quality Assurance’) and to verify that companies actually respect communities’ rights and protect set-asides.

HCS Approach was also adopted by the Palm Oil Innovators Group launched in 2013 by companies and NGOs, including FPP, that were unsatisfied by the limited improvements in the revised RSPO standard adopted in 2013. It had anyway not met the demands of major ‘brands’ and buyers such as the Consumer Goods Forum for climate-friendly products. POIG companies are required to be certified to the RSPO standard and then verified as complying with POIG’s higher standards. In February 2016, RSPO played catch up and adopted a higher standard called RSPO Next which allows RSPO companies to also up their game.

‘High Carbon Stocks Plus’

In 2014, a group of palm oil companies led by Sime Darby and Unilever announced the ‘Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto’, which committed them to come up with a science-based definition of HCS that would take into account forest peoples’ rights and livelihoods. After detailed research, to which FPP contributed, a novel method called ‘HCS+’ was announced in December 2015. HCS+ integrates methods for assessing changes in below-ground carbon stores, with the use of LiDAR techniques to estimate above ground carbon in vegetation. The detailed background social science research came to the sobering conclusion that there is no consistent correlation between the extent of forest clearance for palm and livelihood gains. Too many other requirements have to be in place to ensure that oil palm plantations really enhance ‘development’. The method thus strongly upholds safeguards to protect rights and livelihoods, recommends methods to ensure future palm developments benefit community welfare and warns that human rights cannot be traded off for development.

The two methods differ from each other both in their techniques and intent. HCS Approach offers a way for companies to decide what is and what is not ‘forest’ – basically placing all areas of vegetation, with above ground carbon stores over a certain threshold, off-limits to clearance for plantations as a way of protecting biodiversity (the actual technique is a lot more complicated than that).  HCS+ seeks to ensure carbon neutral development and allows companies that can show carbon sequestration from plantations on open lands and degraded areas to trade those gains for carbon losses in forest clearance, thus allowing some forests to be cleared (again the details are more complicated). More controversially, HCS+ opens the way for companies to ‘trade’ carbon gains in one concession against carbon losses in another ‘in the same geography’. Members of the SPOM committee that oversaw the Science Study go further and propose that companies could even seek to get REDD+ monies for any carbon gains they can demonstrate. The RSPO Next definition aligns closely with HCS+.

What about forest peoples?

Both HCS systems have been designed for application by large companies, who develop palm in large estates or as ‘concessions’, areas decreed to be State lands or forests that are leased to investors for plantations. Neither HCS system is suited to be used by smallholders. The concession system is a colonial model of development designed to facilitate the take-over of ‘native’ lands by foreign companies. Efforts to insist that companies must respect communities’ customary rights and FPIC, as promoted by FPP and many other NGOs, have not led to the changes in company practice that had been hoped for. HCS definitions remain confused about whether or not they apply to lands owned, occupied or otherwise used by indigenous peoples and local communities and field studies show that companies applying the HCS Approach are mainly choosing to cut forest set-asides out of their concessions instead of conserving them. HCS+ now exposes a further flaw by incorrectly assuming that concessionaires not forest peoples own forest carbon, contrary to the rulings of international human rights bodies. It’s time for a rethink.