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The debate continues about zero deforestation approaches: “Zero DF pledges dumb down sustainability and CSR”

Last week I published this post about what brands might do as zero deforestation approaches are seen to need re-working, given we are 1000 days or so away from some big stated deadlines.

That post is linked below, as is a response by Anita Neville from Golden-Agri Resources.

Now, again below, is some further commentary from Chris Wille, now independent but for 24 years the chief of sustainable agriculture at the Rainforest Alliance. It’s well worth reading as part of the discussions about solutions.

Take a look below, and I hope we can keep the debate going. My view is the government engagement, and financial/enforcement incentives angle is the most important, yet the hardest part. Chris suggests focusing on farmers, not internal targets. See below.

Response to my post: 1000 days to go…the six most difficult questions for consumer brands around ‘zero’ deforestation palm oil by 2020

Here’s Chris’s comments on the above:

“Instead of starting a countdown clock on the Zero DF by 2020 commitments, perhaps we should take this moment – 1,000 days out – to, as you suggest, reset our thinking. There is already too much attention on deadlines and not enough on continuous improvement. Pledges and deadlines may be useful in raising funds for NGOs and awareness in market countries, but they ignore and even insult the one and only stakeholder group that can actually make changes – farmers. It’s the tail trying to wag the dog.

(When we say “farmers,” we mean the millions of unorganized smallholders, cooperatives, and the plantation managers and farmworkers employed by agribusiness companies. The challenges are the same for all.)

The Zero DF pledges, while mostly welcomed and well intentioned may be diverting our “community” from the real work which – as we know – is slow, sweaty, slippery with setbacks, and out there on the ground, shoulder to shoulder with the farmers. During more than three decades in promoting sustainable agriculture in the tropics (or anywhere), we know what works. Unfortunately, it’s complicated and difficult and requires tailored approaches to local situations.

Getting farms on the sustainability track requires respecting farmers, recognizing their constraints, customs and traditional knowledge and providing incentives, motivation, self-organization modules, training, tools, technical assistance in problem solving, customized Sustainable Farm Management Practices (SFMPs), access to inputs and credit, land and water rights, and better markets. Farmers must be empowered as entrepreneurs and supported in dealing with their governments.

Farmers must be willingly engaged in our shared struggle toward sustainability. Simply demanding that they meet deadlines set by strangers in far-away cities won’t make it happen.

The Zero DF pledges made by downstream companies can help stimulate and fund these essential activities on the ground, but somebody has to do the work. Many companies, including the pledgemakers, are now directly engaged with farmers, often teamed with local NGOs. That’s necessary and positive, but the pledges themselves don’t help. The Zero DF pledges conflate innumerable challenges into one and make it seem that meeting deadlines is simply a matter of funding and will.

The Zero DF pledges dumb down sustainability and CSR. Compressing a wildly complex challenge into Twitter-size bites and campaign headlines is diversionary and perhaps counterproductive.

All of the actions necessary for moving farms from the environmentally negative end of the scale toward the resilient and regenerative end have been spelled out in detail in the sustainability standards developed by NGOs and (later) the private sector. NGOs, brands and eco-pundits often focus too much on certification, overshadowing the important mechanisms and processes that may or may not lead to a seal on pack – the organizing, empowering and training of farmers.

This time-tested model of supply chain and farm mapping; social-economic and environmental surveys, farm assessments, organizing, development of SFMPs, training, technical assistance and all the rest is often unfortunately referred to as simply, “certification.” The model is slow and flawed, but all the steps are necessary for true, lasting progress – except certification. Certification is just a validation, useful in several ways, but not essential.

The Zero DF pledges were concocted out of frustration with this model or a desire to replace it with something easier and more manageable by northern NGOs. Those vows were taken in a heady haze of ambiguity. There were no metrics or definitions, no way to define success. Hundreds of studies and “tool” developments since, we don’t even agree on what Zero DF means or who gets to decide. It would be equally easy for a brand to claim that its commitment has already been met – or can never be made.

The Zero DF pledges have another fatal flaw: they pretend that deforestation happens in a vacuum, isolated from the socio-political, ecological and economic currents. Pledge promoters have had some forehead-slapping revelations regarding the need to consider indigenous peoples, smallholders, farm management realities and so on. It’s not possible to address any issue alone, whether it be deforestation, climate-change adaptation, pesticides, farm economics, water or wildlife conservation, or workers’ rights. The interlocking interrelatedness of the Three Es are a basic tenet of sustainability.

So, let’s get back to basics – the nitty-gritty work with farmers. Applaud brands for making these pledges. Standing ovations for those that are implementing grassroots programs with farmers. Recognize, even embrace the complexity of the challenge. Measure and reward continuous improvement. Downplay deadlines. Stop looking for scapegoats and accelerate the implementation of science-based, proven, practical solutions.”

Chris Wille was chief of sustainable agriculture at the Rainforest Alliance for 24 years. He’s now an advisor, consultant and facilitator, a “Conservation Consigliere”.

Given the pressing need for solutions here, send your thoughts to me at tobias dot webb at and I’ll see if I can add them on here.

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  1. These insights seem counterfactual and ahistorical. It also underestimates the importance of the market in driving farmer behavior? Are there any examples of non-deadline non-policy or non-financial driven conservation actually producing measurable results? “Standing shoulder to shoulder with plantation managers” may sound good to those who have a temperamental aversion to laws and policies, but in isolation, it doesn’t get the job done without significant either positive or negative incentives to change. It also is incredibly expensive, doesn’t benefit from scalability, and puts the financial burden on public, not private actors.

  2. Chris Wille

    Thanks, Glenn, for inviting clarification. The Sustainable Agriculture Network, the Rainforest Alliance, Forest Stewardship Council and others developed sustainability standards and producer-training programs that embraced all the social, economic and environmental issues because we knew that the only way to conserve forests and wildlife was with holistic, inclusive, integrated programs that benefited farmers, forest managers, workers and their kids and communities. Equally, any approach aimed at improving livelihoods must include progressive ecosystem management, soil and water conservation, climate-change adaptation and farm/forest productivity. In other words, all the challenges, all the goals, are inextricably intertwined.

    By offering tools and guidance for sustainable sourcing policies, supply chain transparency, and consumer-facing certification seals, these programs engaged the private sector and woke citizens. Certification connects farmers and consumers, creating a communications loop.

    While it is necessary to recognize the limits of standards and certification, we should at the same time identify achievements, so we know what to maintain and what to strengthen. Standards and supply chain assurance have begun to positively transform the production and trade in some commodities, such as coffee, cocoa, tea and bananas. Standards and assurance methodologies are the basis of the roundtables. They provide a starter kit for companies and a framework upon which they can build. Excellent examples abound of companies using standards and certification as a spinal column of credibility and a way to gain experience, so that if they wish, they can then develop their own programs to go even further.

    Certification and other forms of assurance are key elements of the approach, but also one of the gears that slows the whole machine. Ten thoughtful NGOs are working together on an Accountability Framework to provide other ways to credibly measure and monitor continuous improvement. This framework will, for example, facilitate the jurisdictional approach to improving land management in large agroscapes.

    Sector-shaking collaborations such as the World Cocoa Foundation, Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, Global Coffee Platform and others may be experimenting with approaches other than certification, but they still rely on standards, impact indicators, best management practices, producer organization and training tools, and other mechanisms that were mostly developed and field tested by the voluntary standard setters, producers and their grassroots allies.

    This model includes an armory of activities that are implemented at the farm and forest level, with NGOs and companies working side by side with farmers and foresters. Training and technical assistance needs are determined by participatory assessments, and progress is verified via standards-based audits.

    For lack of a better term, we refer to this multifaceted and multistakeholder approach as “voluntary standards” or simply “certification,” emphasizing the market end of the process. Its hallmarks include direct engagement with producers, an appreciation for the complexity of the challenges and constraints they face, science-based and field-proofed management guidelines, transparency, verified continuous improvement, and incentives. Access to premium markets and higher farm-gate prices are, of course, one incentive, but growers are equally motivated by increased productivity, improved farm-management cost controls, better access to credit and technical assistance, and the pride of owning or working on a farm that meets rigorous international standards.

    We all want companies to integrate sustainability throughout their businesses, especially in sourcing materials and ingredients. We need consumers to support sustainability through smart shopping. But it is up to the farmers and forest managers to make the changes on the ground. The producers, their NGO and company allies, brands and consumers are all better served by a model that guides and verifies continuous improvement rather than a top-down directive to stop deforesting (whatever that means) by a deadline – or else.

    The model we’ve been developing and driving for all these years works. Sure, it’s slower, costlier, and more complicated than it needs to be, but it’s also continuously analyzed and improved upon. Fixing those impairments is a better use of our collective talents than spending time and funds searching for some magic, cure-all potion. Surely we can agree that there is no single solution, but there are a thousand promising approaches out there that, mixed, matched and accelerated, will get us closer to our shared goals. Let’s not get distracted by narrowly focused pledges and artificial deadlines.

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