Agriculture explains 90% of deforestation. It could be different if we wanted to, urges Claude Garcia.

May 29, 2024

Exploring deforestation’s critical role in corporate responsibility

Claude Garcia, professor of forest governance at the University of Applied Sciences, Berne and and co-founder of Planet C, will speak at the SIAL Summit CSR in October on the theme “Why and how to accelerate CSR commitments in the agro-food industry?” In an exclusive interview, Garcia discusses the complex links between deforestation and agriculture, and the urgent need for companies to adopt responsible practices to mitigate their environmental impacts.

Can you explain your role as a deforestation researcher and your work with Planet C?

As a researcher focusing on deforestation and natural resources, my work spans tropical regions and has global implications. Initially, I measured biodiversity and its changes, but my focus shifted to agricultural practices, supply chain and the decision-making processes behind them. To stop deforestation, we must understand its underlying causes.

My reseach explores the reasons and drivers behind the decisions people make to cut, protect and restore forests. I develop strategy games, somewhat chess or Go, where players make decisions that will impact resources, landscapes and the other players. Planet C – Play again is one such game, where indiviuals and groups see the biases and limitations in their decision-making, promoting better collective management.

What are the main links between deforestation and the agro-food industry, and how do they influence companies’ CSR policies?

Agriculture is the primary driver of global deforestation, with both large-scale agribusiness and small-scale farming contributing almost equally. For example, in Borneo in the last 20 years, 40 % of the oil palm led deforestation is due to small holders, and 40% comes from large agribusiness projects.

It’s crucial for all stakeholders to understand the direct and indirect consequences of their actions. Everyone impacts this system, but not all have the same power or capacity for change. Importantly, 2 to 4 million hectares of forest are lost annually to agriculture without increasing agricultural production, highlighting the need for better project planning and strategic decisions.

CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) managers often find it challenging to influence strategic decisions within companies, sometimes being seen as obstacles. This frustration can hinder effective policy changes.

What practices can agro-food companies adopt to reduce their impact on deforestation?

Effective practices are not always simple. Ensuring that only those who avoid deforestation are part of your value chain can be effective, but this approach can push others into marginal areas, worsening the problem.

those that decide to deforest and those that have no choice but to deforest is essential. Imposing constraints on the former makes sense, supporting the latter is necessary.

These practices require empathy, understanding others’ needs, and engaging in systemic reflection, dialogue, and listening. Quick and cheap solutions might be tempting but are often ineffective.

What are the main challenges for companies integrating anti-deforestation practices into their CSR commitments?

The suspicion of greenwashing is a significant challenge, as unjust accusations can demotivate teams. Conversely, the temptation of greenwashing is a real risk, demanding determination to resist easy ways out.

False good ideas, such as outsourcing to consultants or relying on technological solutions for complex problems, are another challenge. Deforestation and environmental issues require a system thinking approach to be effectively addressed within a company and its ecosystem.

Companies must embrace curiosity, honesty, determination, and creativity to navigate these challenges and develop new relationships with suppliers, customers, and their territories.

Can you share examples of successful strategies or initiatives by companies to improve their environmental impact regarding deforestation?

The palm oil industry, led by Nestlé, has made notable efforts in Indonesia and Malaysia, although the pulp and paper industry continues to pose challenges. For soy and cocoa, successful strategies are scarce.

One effective initiative in the soy sector involves low-interest loans for farmers who could deforest but choose not to. However, the long-term sustainability of such programs is uncertain. NGOs buying land to prevent deforestation works, but is costly and raises concerns about “green colonialism.”

Collaborative efforts, like the french Alliance pour la Préservation des Forêts or partnerships such as the ones between companies and The Earthworm Foundation, are crucial for collective learning and experimentation.

What key message would you like to convey to agro-food industry leaders about the urgency of addressing deforestation?

If you are reading this, you are likely concerned about climate change, biodiversity, or local populations’ conditions. But even if you only look for your company’s competitiveness or reputation, action is now imperative.

  1. Actions now matter more than motives. Regardless of why you are reconsidering your company’s role in deforestation, acting with determination and intelligence can improve on-the-ground conditions and secure your company’s future.
  2. You can make a difference. Significant progress is possible. Deforestation is not inevitable or a necessary evil. Addressing the complexity of the territories where you operate requires time, resources, and new alliances.

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