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How Forest Restoration Is Turning the Tide on Deforestation

Image credit: Asia Pulp and Paper

“Climate change and conservation are inextricably linked,” U.S. President Barack Obama said last week at the 2016 IUCN World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, Hawaii. “Few people understand the stakes better than our Pacific island leaders because they are seeing already the impact. Rising sea levels and temperatures pose an existential threat to your countries.”

This came on the heels of the president’s August 26 announcement that he had approved the expansion of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, known in Hawaii as Papahānaumokuākea, to 582,578 square miles. Lying in the outermost stretches of the Hawaiian chain that extend 1,200 miles northwest of the island of Niihau, the protected area, now is quadruple the size of what it was before the announcement.

Throughout the IUCN conference — the first ever to be held on U.S. soil — a common thread connected the myriad discussions: that business and civil society must work together to address the great conservation challenges of our time.

Chief among the challenges covered at the event was deforestation, which drives 17 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That’s the equivalent of the total emissions generated by all of the world’s cars and trucks. Each year, the world loses more than 32 million acres of forests, roughly an area the size of Alabama.

In addition to being a major cause of climate change, the widespread destruction of the world’s forests also harms the people who live in and rely on them for their livelihoods.

Save the trees, save the world

“The scale of the challenge and opportunity to restore forests is well-known — the question is really how,” said Zhang Xinsheng, president of IUCN, during a session highlighting the progress of the Bonn Challenge. “It’s important to see that we are in the realm of mitigation, not just the realm of conservation. And that we are in the realm of green growth, as well as social progress.”

Currently one of the world’s best hopes for turning the tide on deforestation, the Bonn Challenge is a global effort to restore 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land by 2020 and 350 million hectares by 2030. In addition to promoting climate change mitigation, the initiative is designed to serve as an implementation vehicle for national priorities such as water and food security, rural development, biodiversity and land degradation commitments.

First launched in 2011 at a high-level event in Bonn, the 2020 target was later endorsed and extended to 2030 by the New York Declaration on Forests of the 2014 UN Climate Summit. Among the many signatories included dozens of private companies, including Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), Cargill and Unilever. The Declaration sets a global timeline to halve deforestation of natural forests by 2020, and end it altogether by 2030.

Walmart, General Mills, Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg and Nestlé are among other notable brands to sign the Declaration.

Last week in Honolulu, Malawi and Guatemala committed to restoring a total of 4.54 million hectares of degraded land as part of the Bonn Challenge initiative, pushing the total number of Bonn Challenge pledges past the 100 million hectare milestone to 113 million hectares.

A new approach to achieving net zero deforestation

At the core of the Bonn Challenge is forest restoration, an approach to fighting deforestation that aims to restore ecological integrity at the same time as improving human well-being through multifunctional landscapes. The purpose of forest restoration is to restore a degraded forest to its original state, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, by reestablishing the presumed structure, productivity and species diversity of the forest originally present at a site.

Under this paradigm, an emerging concept is forest landscape restoration (FLR), an approach to forest restoration that involves stakeholders in all affected land-use sectors as well as participatory decision-making processes. FLR is an approach to managing the dynamic and often complex interactions between the people, natural resources and land uses that comprise a landscape, FAO says. It makes use of collaborative approaches to harmonize the many land-use decisions of stakeholders with the aims of restoring ecological integrity and enhancing the development of local communities as they strive to increase and sustain the benefits they derive from the management of their land.

“We see forest landscape restoration as critical for addressing many challenges both local and global,” said German Parliamentary State Secretary Rita Schwarzelühr-Sutter. “Forest landscape restoration is not primarily about carbon ... it’s about people and ecosystem services.”

Such services are valued at $33 trillion — twice the U.S.'s annual GDP — which include facilitating food, water and air production, minimizing storm damage and producing a wide range of natural medicines, among others.

“It’s not just about commitments — it’s about action on the ground,” said Stewart Maginnis, global director of the Nature-Based Solutions Group. “And action is happening.”

Fighting deforestation in Indonesia

If there was a ground zero for global deforestation, a strong argument could be made for Indonesia. The Southeast Asian nation of just under 250 million people has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, and just under half of the country’s original forest cover now remains. More than a million hectares (2.4 million acres) of Indonesian rainforest is cleared and lost each year, according to the Rainforest Action Network, with about 70 percent occurring in forests on mineral soils and 30 percent on carbon-rich peatland forests.

This rampant deforestation has generated many social and environmental problems, including public health issues tied to slash-and-burn activities and wildlife issues, such as threats to the habitats of endangered species.

And let’s not forget the economic impacts — Indonesia’s standing forests provide countless services, most of which have been poorly valued economically and are only just starting to be appreciated. Some 99 million Indonesians are dependent on ecosystem services for their livelihoods, and they account for 21 percent of Indonesia’s GDP, according to the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity initiative, and such services account for 75 percent of the GDP of the country’s rural poor.

How APP employs forest restoration in Indonesia

One of the biggest players involved with Indonesia’s forests is APP, one of the largest pulp and paper companies in the world. The company manages dozens of manufacturing facilities, along with access to a vast landbank of pulpwood concessions worldwide. In 2013, after being abandoned by nearly 100 international corporate customers, including Disney, Levi’s and Mattel, the company announced an immediate end to the clearing of natural forest across its entire supply chain in Indonesia.

Since then, APP has been vocal about its efforts to turn things around and maintains that it no longer participates in clear-cutting operations — it now claims to source 100 percent of the wood for paper and pulp from plantations.

“We’ve seen it with our own eyes and it is our ambition as a company to develop a new business model to decouple growth and environmental degradation,” Aida Greenbury, APP’s managing director of sustainability, said during the IUCN conference. “Business as usual cannot continue… we saw that in our own operations a few years ago that a huge change needed to be done. That’s why we announced our zero deforestation policy back in 2013.”

Notably, APP was the only pulp and paper company invited by the UN to sign the New York Declaration of Forests, which doubled down on its promise to promote net zero deforestation. And so far it looks like the company is following through — a 2015 report from nonprofit Supply Change — a project of the non-profit, Forest Trends — looked at public sustainability disclosures from 41 of the declaration’s endorser companies, which recognized APP’s retirement of roughly 7,000 hectares of commercial plantation areas to protect threatened carbon-rich peatlands — the first time that plantations on tropical peatland have been retired for conservation purposes worldwide.

“This new business model cannot just be implemented in our supply chain but it needs to be implemented at the landscape level — that’s how we came about the Bonn Challenge commitment and made a commitment to help support the protection and restoration of the landscapes in which we operate: roughly 1 million hectares,” Greenbury said.

To achieve this turnaround, APP says it has taken a collaborative approach to implementing its Forest Conservation Policy, even partnering with its former critic, Greenpeace.

“We tried to be the catalyst to involve other parties — especially the scientists, for example from C4, local universities, experts from all over the world … to help us come up with a formula which is replicable, scalable, tradeable — so we can identify cofinancing, for example, because replicating this business model is not going to be cheap,” Greenbury said. “There’s no way one single company can do this alone.”

Meanwhile, APP maintains that, while social conflicts in its supply chain are unavoidable, it has developed a system to manage these issues when they arise. Most often, this involved directly engaging with small landholders to strike deals that benefit both parties. If someone doesn’t want to sell their title to APP for restoration, Greenbury assured me, then the company will leave the land alone. Overall, APP is committing $10 million over five years for community programs, and $10 million per year on forest restoration. So far, it seems to be working.

Note: Travel and accommodations for this reporting were provided by Asia Pulp & Paper.


Based in San Francisco, Mike Hower is a sustainability strategist and storyteller on Edelman's Business + Social Purpose team where he works with some of the world's leading brands on corporate sustainability strategy and stakeholder engagement. With several years of… [Read more about Mike Hower]