Fighting for Forests: The Leuser Ecosystem

Fighting for Forests: The Leuser Ecosystem

The Leuser ecosystem in Sumatra covers over 2.5 million hectares and includes alpine, lowland and mountain rainforest and carbon rich peatlands. It contains some of the world’s highest known levels of plant and animal diversity and is home to the largest intact forest left in Sumatra. It is the last place on earth where critically endangered species like Sumatran orangutans, tigers, elephants, rhinos and sunbears can still be found together in the wild. Sumatra has lost almost 50% of its tropical rainforest in the last 35 years and even designated conservation areas have not been spared from destruction.

But as well as providing a unique home for nature, the Leuser ecosystem also provides essential services to millions of Sumatrans. Their livelihoods and food supply rely on environmental services such as freshwater for irrigation, without which rice production – a staple crop – would collapse. The forests act as a buffer and as forest degradation increases so do flooding, landslides and other natural disasters that have a devastating effect on the long-term welfare of the population. Sumatra provides an excellent habitat for humans, but there has to be better reconciliation of the cost to nature. We have to decouple economic development from vested interests, corruption and illegal logging and clearing to stop the Leuser ecosystem and many other pristine landscapes being lost forever.

In November I visited Indonesia to share M&S sourcing policies for palm oil, paper, and viscose with producers in the region. The aim was to make clear to all stakeholders involved in supplying these materials that M&S customers will not tolerate buying products that contribute to the destruction of carbon rich forests and peatlands, habitat loss and endangering species like the orangutan and rhino.

This doesn’t mean we don’t understand the need for social and economic development in these regions. We do. But we believe that land with lower conservation and carbon values (degraded land) must be prioritised for responsible oil palm and pulpwood development, with the consent of local communities.

Another objective of this visit was to experience the front-line of forest conservation. I spent some time in the Leuser ecosystem with conservation leaders and campaigners, listening to their experiences and challenges. And figuring out what M&S can do to make a positive contribution to their efforts.

Rainforest blog
I met with many inspirational people on my visit. Shayne McGrath is volunteering with local NGOs who are leading the charge to protect the Leuser conservation area from a proposed plan that would reduce it by almost 50%. Shayne and a team of dedicated individuals collect information through field investigations and connects with national and international institutions to strengthen land management processes. Rudi Putra, a native of Aceh, is a biologist whose efforts to combat illegal logging and forest encroachment for palm oil were recently rewarded by the international environmental community; Rudi was last years’ winner of the Island and Island Nations Goldman Environmental Prize in recognition of his work with local communities, police and government officials, to dismantle illegal oil palm plantations inside the Leuser ecosystem.

So what message do Shayne and Rudi have for M&S and our customers? Fascinatingly, they say the major culprit is palm oil BUT banning palm oil is not the answer. Legal, well-managed oil palm plantations can lift people from poverty and provide an incentive for good landscape management and forest conservation & restoration. It is development that does not meet these standards that has to be stopped.

When I met Rudi and Shayne, they were deeply concerned about the attempts by the Aceh Parliament to massively reduce the protected areas of the Leuser ecosystem. They are working as part of an alliance of local NGOs (Rainforest Action Network Leuser campaign) to convince the President of Indonesia, his cabinet ministers and the Governor of Aceh to reject the proposed spatial plan and we discussed what M&S could do to help. I described M&S palm oil and pulp sourcing policies and our recent commitment to ensure that our viscose fabric only comes from companies that do not source from ancient and endangered forests, including the forests of Leuser, and what we’re doing to bring these policies to life.

Rudi and Shayne agreed that these are essential activities, but asked what can we do beyond our own supply chains? I explained my role on the Board of Governors of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (, and my efforts to make the standard more ambitious in its protection of carbon rich forests, peatlands and the rights of indigenous and local communities. Again, thumbs up, but can we do more?

M&S has never been short on ambition so we moved on to discuss the Consumer Goods Forum “zero net deforestation by 2020” commitment. The CGF represents $3 trillion of multi-national Consumer Goods and Retail companies so its reach and influence is substantial. M&S has a leading role within the CGF through Mike Barry (M&S Director of Sustainability) co-chairing the Sustainability Steering Group, and I play an active role within various deforestation working groups. We collectively felt this was a key opportunity. Since I returned I’ve been finalising CGF sourcing guidelines for palm oil and starting to create a roadmap to help retail and consumer goods businesses across the world remove deforestation and conflict commodities from their supply chains.

No-one is saying these are easy ambitions. In many regions consumers aren’t as aware as in our own market, which can make it difficult for business to be bold and face into these challenges. But at M&S we’re clear that deforestation is a non-competitive issue. Only through business collaboration will we achieve the market transformation needed to have sufficient impact on the ground, including in places like Leuser. But leadership is needed, and that is what M&S excels at. So we’re facing into this challenge with confidence and enthusiasm, and a huge thank you to Rudi and Shayne and local communities in Aceh who have to this day been custodians of the Leuser ecosystem!

Beyond certification: The next step for sustainable supply chains

Supply chains are complicated and none more so than those of a retailer like M&S with our thousands of food, home, clothing and beauty products. Beyond our product suppliers are many processors, traders, ingredient manufacturers, wholesalers and farmers who we need to support our sustainability ambitions.

Certification has been the traditional approach to managing these complex supply chains and we remain a huge supporter of its strengths: multi-stakeholder governance; transparency; independent verification; and third party chain of custody.

However certification has to improve. ISEAL’s Credibility Principles are helping to drive consistency, efficiency and technology across multiple different standards. But most sustainability standards are not set up to drive scale change in a way that would allow all the world’s output of a commodity or all of a supermarket’s products to be certified.

To achieve this level of scale change we need a new way of working. One that links markets (developed and developing); producers (big and small); policy makers, civil society and campaigners to deliver a whole landscape approach to managing commodity production.

Let me illustrate below through a few practical examples we’re involved with how this might happen.

Lyme Bay Fisheries and Conservation Reserve Project

Small-scale fishermen can be one of the most difficult groups to engage in conservation activities. Decades of being at the sharp end of policies to reduce fishing effort; a perception that legislators favour bigger operators; and a deeply embedded culture of independence (an essential attribute when your life is spent on small vessels in open seas!) have made many resistant to change.

We’ve been supporting a project at Lyme Bay in the South of England that seeks to engage these small scale fishermen in managing the whole marine ecosystem in the area. Led by the Blue Marine Foundation it puts fishermen at the heart of decision making from the beginning. This means they were willing to listen to regulators, marine conservation organisations and academics, and they were willing to be open about their own practices and what needed to change.

They developed and implemented their own Code of Conduct. They adopted vessel monitoring systems to verify where and how they fish. They undertook Responsible Fishing Scheme training and certification. They looked at the market and how to optimise their catch value, and bought ice machines and introduced quality standards. The local enforcement agencies sought feedback from the fishermen on the effectiveness and practicality of their proposals. As a result both the unique reef features of Lyme Bay and the future of the small fishing fleet are more secure.

Amazon Moratorium

In 2006 Greenpeace campaign ‘Eating up the Amazon’ brought to the world’s attention the devastating impact of soy expansion on the Amazon. It showed the connection between the soybean industry and deforestation. Within weeks the main trade associations declared a moratorium on deforestation, pledging not to buy soy produced on lands deforested after June 2006.

The Moratorium is still in place and statistics demonstrate its success. Despite soy prices rising to record highs since 2007, tropical forest clearing for soybeans has declined and deforestation has been reduced substantially. By 2011 only 0.25% of deforested land had been planted with soy since the moratorium began, only 0.04% of the total soy area in Brazil.

To achieve this required collaboration on an unprecedented scale. The government provided remote sensing data so deforestation maps could be overlaid with land ownership maps, showing which farms were causing deforestation. McDonald’s (the world’s biggest beef user) relationship with Cargill (world’s biggest soya producer) combined with the latter’s role as the major buyer in the region created a market environment that incentivised good behaviour. Geographical remoteness was an unusual advantage as it meant that the only route to export markets was via Cargill’s port at Santarem.

Supported by a broad coalition of European buyers, including M&S, the Moratorium set the standard for Brazilian soy imports to the EU. Brazilian oilseed trade associations were instrumental in acting as brokers in the process, and Greenpeace provided both on the ground technical support and a watchful eye to ensure the integrity of the arrangement was robustly maintained.

Water Stewardship in the Lake Naivasha region

Lake Naivasha is a unique natural, social and business environment hosting 70% of Kenya’s cut flower export business, geothermal power generation, tourism, fishing, smallholder agriculture and an expanding population. But the Basin also has poor water data, challenges in public water governance, a growing population and persistently high levels of poverty which together make the sustainable use of water difficult to achieve.

Research told us our suppliers were efficient and responsible water users but that further improvements were needed to protect the wider water basin. A research team worked closely with farm managers, Kenyan institutions and local experts to assess what worked well and what needed strengthening.

Three case studies, the Amazon, Kenya and the South Coast of England. Different challenges, politics and of course geographic scale but they show some common themes. Firstly the only credible long term solution for marketplaces defined by millions of different products and supply chain linkages is robust, jurisdictional landscape based regulation.

Of course business can and should use certification to support this approach but ultimately a strong public approach to regulation not only has a greater democratic mandate but is also more efficient than trying to ‘privately regulate’ millions of different products and raw materials. Put simplistically a business wants to be able to say ‘all our soya comes from Brazil which has a strong approach to preventing deforestation and we don’t need to micro-manage every kg of soya from there and the millions of animals and products it ends up in’.

Secondly all three case studies show what a difference true collaboration can make. Collaboration based on equality, respect and a willingness to listen. Finally each has spawned practical solutions from fishing nets to satellite imaging of deforestation to water conservation.

Yes business needs to scale certification, improve its efficiency and prove better the outcomes it delivers but it must also see the bigger picture that robust global, national and regional governance is the true endpoint morally and financially.

Co-written by Mike Barry and Fiona Wheatley

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