Rainforest Protection: The last step is the hardest and most important.

Rainforest Protection: The last step is the hardest and most important.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “the first step is the hardest” plenty of times.

And, indeed, it often is. Think of the courage it took for civil rights marchers to take the first step onto Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Or for Neil Armstrong to take his first small step.

But, in many cases, it’s the last step that’s the most difficult, the most miraculous . . . and the most critical.

That’s especially true for the effort to stop the hacking down of Southeast Asia’s tropical forests for the production of palm oil.

Palm oil is that smooth substance that you’re surprised to see on the ingredients list of products you would never have connected to tropical rainforests. Cereal, crackers, soap, shampoo, detergents, and on and on. Can you believe that the average human uses 17 pounds of the stuff per year?1

Once mechanized timber systems were developed a few decades ago that rivaled those of the Truffula Tree choppers in The Lorax, the standard method for getting to the palm trees’ oily fruit was simply “chop-strip-and-burn”. Left behind was a hellscape of stumps that is all too familiar to those who venture into the clear-cuts hidden by a veneer of trees in so many American forests.

This wasn’t exactly a secret to the orangutans, elephants, and tigers who used to call those forests home.

But, so long as their story didn’t escape the wilds of Borneo, Indonesia, and Malaysia, their way of life was doomed and the palm oil companies’ short-term success ensured.

But things started changing early this decade.

As of 2012, 95% of the world’s palm oil refineries processed trees with few questions asked about their origin or the devastation left behind.

But, by the end of 2017, that number was down to 26%. The other 74% have signed “zero-deforestation agreements” that commit the companies to grow to maturity one tree for every tree they cut down.

What caused that 74% to see the light?

Give credit to three factors:

  1. Pressure from local activists and governments who had painful first-hand experience with the loggers’ short-term benefits AND the long-term downsides.
  2. Pressure from shareholder activists. The most effective tactic has been to focus on the companies that turn the palm oil into consumer products, such as Kellogg’s and McDonald’s. At last count, 400 companies have agreed to buy palm oil only from loggers that have signed (and are abiding by) zero-deforestation agreements. That, in turn, put pressure on the loggers to change their ways or lose their big customers.
  3. A growing realization by corporate executives that the activists are right: their approach isn’t economically sustainable over the long run.

The results have been amazing.

One policy from Asia’s largest agribusiness, Wilmar International, will help keep 1.5 gigatons of carbon in the ground and has already improved the working conditions for its 90,000 employees.

Now, the challenge is to convince the remaining 26% to take the last step.

As you can imagine, the holdouts are the ones most focused on the bottom line, the ones least susceptible to pressure.

But they’re also the most important to persuade. That’s because, for as long as there are still some prominent companies using the old, cheaper (in the short-term) methods, the rest of the industry is going to be tempted to cave in to temptation. For there to be a real, long-lasting ban, everyone needs to agree to it.

For now, it’s back to the tried-and-true plan, but with a need for more resources, more determination, more street savvy. The first step is to persuade Cargill (one of the world’s largest agribusinesses) and McDonald’s (one of the largest purchasers of beef) to do the right thing…and to hold them to their promises.

It won’t be until the last step is taken that the orangutans of Borneo, the tigers of Bengal, and the people who live alongside them, will be able to rest easy.

1. Anuradha Raghu. “We Each Consume 17 Pounds of Palm Oil a Year”. Bloomberg News, May 17, 2017