On my way to Jakarta yesterday for a series of meetings with the Tropical Forest Alliance—a consortium of government and corporate leaders from around the world working to confront the world’s deforestation crisis—I stopped for a layover in Singapore. I was immediately hit over the head by the urgency of our task. There, just outside the airport windows, the once rich rainforests of Sumatra hung suspended as a thick, sickly smoke polluting the tropical air.
While the historic haze engulfing Singapore and parts of Malaysia right now is shocking and record-breaking, the tragic reality is that it is just the most visible symptom of the much deeper problem I traveled here to address. Widespread, illegal burning to clear rainforests and peatlands for palm oil and pulp and paper plantation expansion has become a well-established yearly ritual in Sumatra and Borneo.
Rapidly expanding pulp, paper and palm oil plantations are driving one of the world’s highest rates of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. There is an urgent need to transform the way that these commodities are produced.
Irreplaceable wildlife species like the orangutan and Sumatran tiger face a very real threat of extinction in our lifetimes, while land conflicts and human rights abuses plague rural and Indigenous communities across Borneo and Sumatra.
I traveled across the world because a promising new opportunity is emerging that could deliver a transformation in these sectors with the potential to break the link between pulp, paper and palm oil production and deforestation and human rights violations. The Tropical Forest Alliance (TFA) is a partnership between major companies (including the makers of many of America’s most popular foods) and governments. TFA aspires to achieve 100%-deforestation-free commodities by 2020.
The TFA was launched last year at Rio+20 by the Consumer Goods Forum—which includes 400 major global companies—and the U.S. government. Since then, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Norwegian governments have joined the alliance. The TFA’s June 27th – 28th workshop aims to bring together the key players who produce, consume and set policies that impact the way pulp, paper and palm oil are produced.
Rainforest Action Network is attending the workshop to encourage companies and governments to commit to decisive action to end deforestation and human rights violations. We will also call for the TFA to strengthen its commitment by pledging to achieve 100% deforestation AND social conflict/slave labor free commodities by 2020.
The US government has an important role to play as the founder of the TFA. Seven leading groups, including Rainforest Action Network, have produced a report titled “Breaking the Link between Commodities and Climate Change” that outlines the steps the US government needs to take to tackle rainforest destruction and land conflicts associated with these commodities. One of the most important roles for governments is to support land management reforms in key countries so communities’ rights to their customary lands are recognized, respected and maintained.
My greatest hope is that the international media attention being generated by the record smoke pollution enveloping Singapore right now will serve as a wake up call that pressures the members of the TFA to move quickly and meaningfully. The time for talking in circles and shifting blame is over. We still have a narrow window of opportunity to work together to create systemic change to preserve our remaining rainforests and stop the human suffering that producing these commodities currently causes. But that window is shrinking, and fast.
Stay tuned for further dispatches this week from Jakarta as the meetings proceed.