“Zero Deforestation” reveals the dark side of dark green

January 20, 2015
Dominic Elson

The recent spat between two giants of greenery, Jonathan Porritt and Tony Juniper, reveals a positive change in the way the environmental movement is adapting to new realities. It also shows how the old distinction between the ‘dark’ and ‘light’ greens is no longer really serviceable. However, the positions on both sides are still somewhat malformed, use evidence selectively, and have some strange bedfellows.

Porritt argues that the green movement’s enthusiasm for ‘zero deforestation’ pledges is using simplistic soundbites without understanding how such pledges could trap marginalised rural communities in poverty. His point seems to be that a certain amount of deforestation is essential for generating economic growth. This much may be true, but needs careful caveats depending on location and the region’s position on the growth transition curve. A better argument may be that conservation areas (the colonial era ‘zero deforestation’ pledge), inhibit human development whilst often failing to conserve forests.

Alas, Porritt does not take a swipe at conservation areas (that would be a taboo too far in the green movement), instead he seems to be scathing about the pledges made by private sector companies to eliminate deforestation in their supply chains. In one respect, he is right that these pledges often have more than just a whiff of PR bullshit. Some upstream companies (e.g. pulp and paper) have simply exhausted supplies of cheap natural forest and now need to get stuck into the difficult and expensive business of planting trees, so getting PR value for doing what they need to do anyway looks like a neat trick to me. Meanwhile, palm oil companies are realising there is some marketing value in trumpeting their sustainable credentials. They tend to be companies that are consolidating after their growth phase that involved massive deforestation, and now want to leave their sins behind them. Well, when one sinner repenteth I guess there is rejoicing in Greenpeace HQ.

To this extent, Porritt’s criticism is sound. However, he then ruins it by scampering off into the ‘hutan rawa’ to talk about carbon. He refers to his involvement in a forthcoming report on forest carbon value that, like Winnie the Pooh, is taking us on yet another turn of the 100 Acre wood, over our own footprints.

The science on forest carbon values is quite well advanced. The reason to do more detailed research is perhaps to attempt to find some plausible intellectual space to justify clearance of natural forest for plantations. This has been done before, and it does Porritt no credit whatsoever to find himself in the same camp as companies that believe the only calculation that matters is the carbon balance. I can save them some money and do the calculations for them now on the back of this APP envelope from Staples: they will find that certain types of natural forest in let’s say, Liberia, have carbon stock of roughly 200 tCO2e per hectare, of which 50% is in the standing stock. Clearing the forest and replacing it with oil palm will have little impact on soil (they may argue), and the palm trees will sequester carbon as they grow, and the resulting stand will be about 150 tCO2e, so net loss is 50t. The company will agree to ‘preserve’ some peatland that it happens to have somewhere in its estate, and the resulting offset will leave them effectively neutral. The company will make much of the huge sacrifice involved in leaving the peatland areas alone, as well as scared groves, riparian zones and hillsides. Their selflessness will be rewarded by environmentalists, politicians and celebrities, all of which has a PR value that even their money could never buy. Toilet roll and cheap cooking oil will fly off the shelves.

Conversely, Juniper argues that Porritt is in hock to companies such as Sime Darby, who may be using Porritt and Forum for the Future to give a gloss of respectability to their plans to deforest huge swathes of Liberia (when ebola has calmed down; palm oil may be unstoppable, but Malaysian planters aren’t completely irrational). But as I have explained above, Juniper’s defence of the large companies declaring zero deforestation pledges is not much more respectable. The fact is, both Porritt and Juniper have woken up one morning and found themselves to be shills for big business. I can understand the attraction: surely if we can persuade these companies to make meaningful pledges then we can ‘save’ huge areas of forest without having to go through all that messy business of improving forest governance in difficult countries.

The environmental movement is missing the point. The problem with plantations is not just the deforestation, loss of biodiversity or GHG emissions. The biggest issue is that they fail to alleviate poverty, trap countries in a natural resource extraction economy and weaken institutions through rent seeking, corruption and outright banditry. Although the deforestation is the most visibly shocking aspect of plantations, it is less serious than the institutional damage. It is very hard for rural regions and countries to develop sustainably in the context of weak institutions and chronic inequality. Juniper gets close to this with his reference to how Costa Rica reformed its forest sector and thus built a decent economy whilst simultaneously growing its forest stock. But this was partly an accident of timing: at this particular stage in the country’s transition in the 1980’s, commodity prices (e.g. For beef) were low, so there was an economic incentive to urbanise rather than invest in extensive agriculture. The rural sector intensified instead, increased productivity and shed labour to the cities. Regardless of any policy prespription to protect forests, it is more likely that the forests recovered simply because there was no business case to clear the land. The availability of labour in urban areas helpd Costa Rica build a fairly balanced economy.

Perhaps one of the best ways to help countries such as Indonesia, Myanmar and Liberia to manage their rural economies more successfully, in a manner that puts people first and plans for the long term, is for commodity prices to fall. This is why downstream companies such as Nestle, Unilever and Danone are so keen on the zero deforestation pledge: they are confident that the installed production base for raw materials – built through huge deforestation – is now close to the point of creating gluts for certain commodities. This has already happened with rubber and sugar, is begining to happen with palm oil and may even occur in cocoa and coffee (although we are some years off that for those two). It may also explain why some plantation companies, such as Wilmar, are selling off their plantation assets and moving downstream. The raw material producer’s bonanza is over, and Tony Juniper’s friends are on the right side of this phase of economic history. If Jonathan Porrit wants to become the economic realist he pretends to be, then he needs to find new friends.