Victory: Wilmar Announces Deforestation Free Policy, is Kellogg’s Next?

By Joel Finkelstein
Forests & Lands, Political Strategy

For months now, through the Forest Heroes campaign, Michiganders have been demanding that Kellogg’s use their joint venture partnership with palm oil giant Wilmar to urge the company to improve its palm oil sourcing policies in order to reduce deforestation and habitat loss. Wilmar has apparently gotten the message. The massive palm oil trader today announced a new policy that has the potential to shift the entire industry.

“With a massive boost from the determined advocacy of Michigan communities, Wilmar has announced it will implement a comprehensive policy to protect forests,” said Deborah Lapidus, Outreach Director for Climate Advisers, which works with Forest Heroes to transform the palm oil industry. “And we are told a big reason why is that Kellogg’s picked up the phone and demanded action. Thank you, Kellogg’s, for listening to your Michigan neighbors.”

Wilmar’s announcement comes after months of input from Michigan communities and families to Kellogg’s, culminating in a rally and the delivery of thousands of petitions asking Kellogg’s to demand change from its corporate partner, Wilmar. Kellogg’s did just that, and today change happened.

Wilmar’s new policy also comes on the heels of a decade of advocacy from NGOs around the world to persuade the company to adopt stronger standards.

Why all the fuss about palm oil to begin with? Well if you’re new to the campaign and this blog, the palm oil industry is currently one of the most environmentally destructive on the planet. The rapid spread of palm oil plantations is responsible for rampant deforestation, endangered species habitat loss, and severe climate and local air pollution. Though there are now hopes that today’s announcement could begin to change that.

Wilmar’s new “No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation Policy” would, if implemented, catalyze a wholesale change in how palm oil is produced, and where plantations are sited.

So what exactly does the policy entail? Basically, it calls for numerous provisions to change the way commodities are sourced:

  • No Deforestation: No more cutting down the rainforest for agricultural production.
  • No Exploitation: Protect the rights of workers and communities, including the right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent.
  • Protects High Carbon Stock landscape: Including peatlands of any depth.
  • Protects High Conservation Value forests: No more clearing of forests that are habitat for endangered species, such as orangutans, Sumatran tigers, elephants, and rhinos.

Up until now, the largely unregulated — and rapidly growing — industry has laid waste to more than 30,000 square miles of tropical rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia alone. Palm oil is a $50 billion a year commodity that winds up in roughly half of all consumer goods for sale, including snacks and sweets and soaps and detergents and countless other packaged goods. Over the past decade alone, palm oil imports to the U.S. have increased nearly fivefold. The incredible loss of richly biodiverse rainforests to clearcutting also threatens the 400 or so remaining Sumatran tigers, as well as orangutans, elephants, and rhinos. Not to mention the tens of millions of people who depend on the forests to survive. Then there’s the climate impact of stripping the world of some of its most important carbon sinks. Factor in forest loss, and Indonesia is the world’s third largest source of global warming pollution.

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And with a few strokes of the pen, change happens.

When you think of palm oil, you should be thinking about the industry leader Wilmar. As TFT Executive Director Scott Poynton, said today, “Few companies dominate their sectors the way Wilmar dominates palm oil, controlling 45 percent of global trade. Today’s announcement by itself transforms the industry.”

The Impact

Preliminary analysis suggests that Wilmar’s new commitment will eliminate more than 1.5Gt CO2 emissions total between now and 2020 – and perhaps substantially more. This estimate is based on a conservative analysis of the policy’s impacts only on the development of peat-swamp forests in Malaysia, Borneo, and Sumatra, based on carbon emissions estimates in Koh et al:

  • Let’s assume that emissions are equal across the 45% of palm oil supply traded by Wilmar, the more than 80% of supply traded by companies that sell to Wilmar, and the remaining suppliers. Let’s further assume that peatland clearing for palm oil declines rapidly for the 45% of the market flowing through Wilmar (by 20% per year, reaching zero in 2018); declines somewhat for other supplies by the same companies (declining 5% a year, down to 70% of current rate in 2020); and holds steady for the remainder of the market.
  • If peat emissions are only considered for the 5 years following conversion, this scenario yields a reduction of palm oil development emissions reaching 325 MMt/year in 2020 and totaling more than 1.5 Gt CO2e from 2014 through 2020.
  • The true reductions could be significantly higher – because peatlands continue to emit for far longer than the 5 years included in this analysis; because palm oil expansion is not limited to just these areas nor to just peatlands; because the analysis doesn’t consider whether the policy will reduce speculative clearing for oil palm; and because the analysis has assumed that emissions from oil palm development would be flat at current levels rather than continue to grow, as they have in the past decade.

Changing the Industry

Some consumer-facing companies have already taken a stand, stating commitments to sourcing “deforestation-free” palm oil, but Wilmar’s new policy, according to Poynton, “dwarfs in ambition any previous joint commitment by the palm oil sector.”

The policy goes dramatically further than the standards set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the major industry-led body that “certifies” as sustainable palm oil that can come from previously clearcut virgin rainforests and carbon-rich peatlands. (You can read more about the RSPO’s absurdly poor standards in this earlier guest post by Glenn Hurowitz of Climate Advisers.)

If Wilmar’s policy is adhered to as written, then the world’s largest palm oil broker will stop trading commodities sourced from plantations built on top of clearcut or torched rainforests, nor from former peatlands, which serve as essential carbon sinks.

The key now is implementation. A policy is all fine and good, but without transparent and verifiable implementation, it’s not worth more than the paper it’s printed on. “The ambition and scope of this commitment means it could mark start of a new era, but only if it’s more than words on paper,” said Hurowitz.

Added Poynton, “We commend Wilmar for their strong new policy, and now is the time for transparent and verifiable implementation.”

This announcement doesn’t mean that the work of the Forest Heroes campaign is done. Though Kellogg’s relationship with Wilmar has been the crux of the campaign, organizers and volunteers still want to make sure that the Kellogg company itself also makes a firm commitment to deforestation free ingredients.

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Forest Heroes volunteers and organizers thank Wilmar for making this commitment.

“This is a grrrrrrrreeeat win,” said Emma Hyde, a student at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “But it’s only Part One. For Part Two, we hope that Kellogg’s will very soon announce its own corporate policies eliminating deforestation and exploitation from its own supply chain. And it’s surreal to say so, but Wilmar gives them a good model to follow.”

Wilmar’s policy is available online here.

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On December 5, 2013

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