Not all business efforts at conservation are greenwashing, says expert

NEO CHAI CHIN Today Online 8 Jul 16;

SINGAPORE — Conservation scientists and palm oil and pulp companies make strange bedfellows — or do they?

Conservation opportunities exist in business, and scientists can help companies that want to do the right thing, argued Indonesia-based conservation scientist Erik Meijaard at a major scientific conference here last week.

Dr Meijaard had given his opening keynote address for the four-day Conservation Asia 2016 conference a somewhat provocative title: Integrating business and conservation. The way forward or a slide into greenwashed oblivion?

His conclusion, informed by over 20 years of experience: “I don’t think it’s all greenwashing. I think there’s a lot of greenwashing, companies that don’t care at all about environmental and social responsibilities, but there are examples of companies trying to do things differently and it’s important to work with these companies.

“Some companies don’t know how to do it; we have to help them and constructively move forward. So it’s important all of us seek that kind of opportunity to translate research into something meaningful for the company,” he said.

Dr Meijaard was approached a few years ago by a firm called PT KAL, which wanted to be the “best oil palm plantation in the world”. He asked for the firm to have an environmental manager on par with its senior managers, with a right to say no if conservation targets were in conflict with other targets.

The company gradually tackled the hunting, illegal logging and snares in its plantations’ set-aside areas in West Kalimantan, and Dr Meijaard said it has not had an illegal logging event for the past two years.

Some 150 orangutans can be found in its oil palm concessions, he told an audience of over 550 participants from 37 countries.

Dr Meijaard first went to Indonesia as a student in the early 1990s and found through his work that timber concessions can play an important role in conservation. A logged forest is better than no forest, and selective logging is the next best option after a protected area, he said.

But timber concessions are being lost — data from Indonesian Borneo from 1990 to 2014 shows a big decline in forests in non-protected areas. From 82 per cent of 365,863sqkm in 1990, the figure dropped to 62 per cent of 245,425sqkm in 2014.

Although commitments by major pulp companies that played a major role in deforestation in the past can feel a little too late, Dr Meijaard called for a rethink of the assumption that “big is bad”.

A study published in Conservation Letters last year found that four major industries — logging, fibre plantations, oil palm and coal mining — contributed to about 45 per cent of total forest-cover loss in Indonesia from 2000 to 2010. This meant 55 per cent of it occurred outside industrial concession boundaries.

One of the study’s authors, Assistant Professor Janice Lee of Nanyang Technological University (who was then with ETH Zurich), said non-governmental organisations can play the role of trusted third parties to help consumers identify companies that greenwash, or dishonestly present themselves as environmentally responsible.

Pristine habitats should not even be given out by governments as concessions areas for industrial activities, but such issues are often about governance and are beyond conservation science, she said.

Research could also deliver food for thought on the amount of growth needed. Asst Prof Lee recently co-authored a paper looking at the amount of palm oil and soybean oil needed to produce junk food.

People’s habits may not change overnight but such research could get them thinking if humans are razing the forest for poor nutrition, she said. Neo Chai Chin

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