Golden Agri-Resources to Deforest No More?

One of the world’s biggest suppliers of palm oil, which is a common food ingredient and biofuel, has announced a new policy to stem deforestation in Indonesia. Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), the palm oil producing branch of the Sinar Mas conglomerate, says it will commit to ending deforestation on the most valuable forestlands in Indonesia. This is a big step forward for both the fight against climate change and conservation of global biodiversity.

In the past I’ve written about a growing trend in which more and more international corporations have cut ties with Sinar Mas, an Indonesia-based company whose subsidiaries produce both palm oil and wood and paper products. Growing public concern over Sinar Mas’ contribution to deforestation has prompted companies from Nestle to Burger King to adopt new policies that phase out reliance on palm oil and paper products sourced from endangered forests. Most of the time this has automatically meant ditching Sinar Mas, which has been perhaps the single most important driver of forest loss in Indonesia. At least until now.

If implemented successfully, GAR’s new policy could mark the beginning of a shift away from deforestation for Sinar Mas and other companies. The policy focuses on three main areas, all of which are important for preventing the most destructive kinds of forest loss. First, GAR says it will avoid palm oil development on “High Carbon Stock” forests, which is especially important for preventing climate change. GAR also states it will not develop High Conservation Value forestland, judged to be particularly essential for biodiversity. The final element is a commitment to respect the rights of indigenous and local communities, who have been severely affected by the palm oil industry’s encroachment on their lands.

GAR’s new policy doesn’t mean the end of the fight to protect Indonesia’s rainforests and reduce the carbon footprint that comes with deforestation. Commitments stated on paper still need to be translated into on-the-ground changes in company policy. Meanwhile other corporations continue to clear Indonesian forest for private gain—including the wood and paper branches of Sinar Mas, which have not laid out forest protection commitments equivalent to those of GAR. However GAR’s announcement may be the most encouraging sign of the last few years that rampant deforestation is becoming internationally unacceptable.

The Indonesian government should now work with GAR and other companies to bring development of carbon sinks and biodiversity strongholds to a complete halt in the region. Though the government has been making noises for a long time about curbing deforestation, so far little progress has been made. Meanwhile destruction of forests has given Indonesia a carbon footprint bigger than most industrialized countries. The news that GAR wants to end deforestation could be what finally tips the scales in favor of the forests, spurring the government and private sectors to work together for a low-carbon future in Indonesia.

Photo credit: Paul Keller