From foe to friend? The brands seeking to partner with indigenous peoples to end deforestation

A Guajajara Indian "forest guardian" through the forest searching illegal loggers on Arariboia indigenous land near the city of Amarante
A Guajajara Indian "forest guardian" walks through the forest searching illegal loggers on Arariboia indigenous land near the city of Amarante, Maranhao state, Brazil, September 10, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino
  • Nestle, Mars Inc and 3M, which source pulp and paper in British Columbia, have struck a partnership with the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation people, supporting their efforts to protect key parcels of land with cultural significance
  • Handful of brands now looking to safeguard indigenous peoples' land rights as they try to achieve zero-deforestation goals in supply chains
  • One study in Brazil found exponentially higher forest protection rates where indigenous populations have legal land rights
  • Earthworm Foundation and Rights + Resources Initiative trying to accelerate corporate best practice
  • Nestle and Mars both scored Ds on Rainforest Action Network's scorecard for no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation in their palm oil supply chains in Indonesia

March 30 - A vast sub-boreal forest deep in the heart of British Columbia is a key test case for a global shift in how consumer product companies are trying to achieve deforestation-free supply chains and climate change goals.

The 3.2-million-hectare tract, which teems with lodgepole pine, spruce and other valuable timber, has brought together unusual bedfellows – the indigenous Tsay Keh Dene First Nation people, who have occupied the Maryland-sized territory for centuries, and a handful of global consumer giants – Nestle, Mars Inc and 3M – whose complex supply chains tap into the lumber and wood pulp to help meet their product packaging needs.

What’s unique about the partnership is that the Tsay Keh Dene are calling the shots: the companies have all committed to support the First Nation’s management plans for the territory, including protecting key parcels with cultural significance from unwanted harvesting for pulp and paper.

They are communicating these expectations to their suppliers operating in the territory, and paying for satellite monitoring to ensure no road building or logging is taking place in protected areas.

While the Canadian government’s past activities in the territory have been criticised, Ottawa has expressed a commitment more recently to recognise the Tsay Keh Dene’s rights.

“The First Nation wants economic development, they want to make a living, but there are certain regions they don’t want touched,” said Bastien Sachet, chief executive of the Earthworm Foundation, a nonprofit specialising in sustainable supply chains, which brought the parties together starting in 2019.

Piles of logs are pictured at a forestry in Squamish, British Columbia, Canada. REUTERS/Ben Nelms

“The key is that they have a voice in how their land is being managed,” he added. “That’s a game changer.”

After years of mounting deforestation losses, and companies falling short on their no-deforestation goals, supporting indigenous people’s rights has become a new focus area for some consumer companies, whose supply chains for palm oil, beef, soy and wood products are key drivers of deforestation and accelerating climate change impacts. The commodities account for more than half of tropical deforestation, eating up the equivalent of 10 soccer fields every minute.

For Nestle, the switch in strategy came in 2021. After failing to meet its no-deforestation goals in 2020, the company unveiled a broader “forest-positive” strategy, which continues its commitment to zero deforestation, but also prioritises forest restoration and the land rights and sustainable livelihoods of indigenous peoples and local communities.

“Focusing on deforestation alone is not sufficient. We also need to have an active role in conserving and restoring the landscapes, and empowering local communities, that are part of our supply chains,” said Michele Zollinger, global sustainable sourcing for pulp and paper lead at Nestle.

As of December 2021, Nestle said 97.2% of its supply chains for meat, palm oil, pulp and paper, soy and sugar were deforestation-free, although notable exceptions remain, including supply chains for the products for which it is best-known: cocoa and coffee. Read more.

The new focus on indigenous rights is part of a larger pendulum-swing that has governments worldwide scrambling for new ways to slow forest and biodiversity losses and escalating climate impacts.

Last December, 196 governments approved a landmark global agreement in December to protect 30% of the planet’s lands and oceans by 2030. A year earlier, at the international climate talks, governments and private philanthropies pledged $1.7 billion to support indigenous and local communities’ efforts to protect their rights and land.

A member of The Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) holds a placard with portraits of murdered British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

Indigenous peoples, local communities, and Afro-descendant people number about 2.5 billion people globally. They customarily claim nearly half of the world’s lands and forests, although they have legal rights to less than 20% of that land. These groups have also been broadly recognised as the best stewards of forests and other landscapes, especially when they have legally recognised land rights. One recent study focused on Brazil’s Atlantic Forest found exponentially higher forest protection rates in territories where indigenous populations had secured legal land rights.

Yet companies seeking to champion the rights of indigenous groups will have to rebuild trust after centuries of mistreatment by early European colonisers, and more recently by global agri-businesses. Growing supply chain demands for palm oil, beef and other consumer products – the result of population growth and rising living standards – have contributed to the harmful impacts, including physical displacement, reduced livelihoods and environmental degradation.

The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre documented 883 attacks on indigenous human rights defenders - including killings, threats and arbitrary detention - from January 2015 to August 2022. Nearly all the attacks (95%) were on climate, land and environmental defenders, and agribusiness companies are second only to mining in terms of numbers of attacks.

Bryson Ogden, director of rights and livelihoods at the Washington DC-based Rights + Resources Initiative, a nonprofit global coalition dedicated to advancing land and resource rights of local peoples, said the Tsay Keh Dene effort is a positive example of what companies, civil society and indigenous groups can do when they work together on securing community land rights.

“The ($1.7 billion of) funding (from governments for indigenous peoples) is a good indicator, although it’s a drop in the bucket. But there’s also been an equivalent shift on the company side. … Many of the big (consumer) brands that we all know have land tenure policies and indigenous rights policies.” But he emphasised that the shift is still nascent. “Those policies are not yet trickling down through supply chains.”

In February, Nestle was the first major brand to publish a detailed roadmap, with specific steps to ensure that indigenous peoples and local communities' land rights are being respected in its operations, supply chains and other business relationships.

Groups like the Earthworm Foundation and the Rights + Resources Initiative (RRI) are helping to accelerate corporate best practices and build direct relationships with indigenous and local community groups on the ground. RRI also leads the Interlaken Group, an informal network of companies, investors and other groups working to secure community land rights.

Trucks with palm oil fresh fruit bunches queue for unloading at a factory in West Aceh, Indonesia. Antara Foto/Syifa Yulinnas/ via REUTERS

These kinds of partnerships are critical given the extensive number of suppliers that companies like Nestle, which has supply chains in more than 100 countries, rely on.

“It’s not feasible for us to be in 100 different countries with 100 different projects,” said Zollinger, who credits the Earthworm Foundation and RRI for helping to build better understanding and trust with indigenous and other local community groups.

Nestle and Mars are both partnering with the Earthworm Foundation to help preserve a rich ecosystem in the southern region of Indonesia’s Aceh province, which is brimming with orangutans, tigers and old-growth tropical forest. Working with local communities, the project aims to cut deforestation rates in half by 2025 across the southern Aceh landscape, including no deforestation in priority areas of Aceh Singkil, Subulussalam and Southern Aceh.

Given the abject failure by brands to live up to their commitments to end deforestation in their supply chains by 2020, environmental activists want to see how commitments to safeguard indigenous peoples’ rights are carried out on the ground. So far, according to Gemma Tillack, forest policy director of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), their actions have been “broadly lagging”.

She noted that the Forest Positive Coalition of Action, which includes 22 of the world’s largest consumer goods retailers and manufacturers, has a major focus on improving smallholder growing practices but only a “minimal focus on ensuring respect of indigenous peoples and advancing legal recognition of their land rights”.

The Rainforest Action Network has an annual Keep Forests Standing Report, which scores 17 companies and banks on their efforts to prevent deforestation and respect human rights in Indonesia. In February, RAN welcomed Nestle’s action plan as the first brand to publish a dedicated action plan on respecting indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ land rights, but pressed the company to move quickly to ensure it is being implemented with two of its major palm oil and forestry suppliers in Indonesia, the Harita Group and Royal Golden Eagle Group.

RAN says both lack adequate policies to ensure indigenous peoples are able to give or withhold their free, prior and informed consent to development on their territories.

“Nestle must put this plan into immediate action to ensure the rights of the Long Isun and Pargaman-Bintang Maria (indigenous) communities are respected,” RAN said in a statement. “The company must also bring forward the date set to report on the plan’s implementation from 2025 to 2023.”

Nestle and Mars, which is also involved in the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation partnership, both scored Ds on RAN’s 2022 Keep Forests Standing report. Unilever, which got a C, was the only brand with an adequate “no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation” policy across all its commodity supply chains, according to RAN. Laggard brands, with an F, included Mondelez, Japan’s Nissin Foods and Procter & Gamble.

Sachet, at the Earthworm Foundation, agrees the industry has a long way to go. “While some companies are piloting such partnerships successfully, the vast majority of consumer companies are not yet aware of the indigenous territories their supply chains are impacting,” he said. “Hopefully this work can inspire them to get moving.”

This article is part of the latest issue of The Ethical Corporation Magazine, which is about a just transition. You can download the digital pdf here

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Ethical Corporation Magazine, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Peyton Fleming is a freelance journalist who has written extensively about climate change, climate finance and energy issues. His articles have appeared in The Guardian, Quartz, Yale Environment 360 and National Geographic.