New tool helps monitor forest change within commodities supply chains

  • With commercial agriculture driving some 40 percent of tropical deforestation, more than 300 major companies involved in the commodities trade have pledged to avoid deforestation in their supply chains.
  • To help the companies and financial institutions adhere to these commitments, Global Forest Watch (GFW) has launched a new forest monitoring tool called GFW Pro.
  • Using tree cover change information from GFW’s interactive maps, the new desktop application enables users to observe and monitor deforestation and fires within individual farms and supply sheds or across portfolios of properties and political jurisdictions.
  • To encourage use by businesses, the new tool presents the information in graphs and charts to companies for easy and regular monitoring, as they might monitor daily changes in stock prices.

Commercial agriculture drives some 40 percent of deforestation in the tropics, as suppliers clear forest to plant soy, oil palm, rubber, and cacao or to raise beef cattle.

More than 300 major commodities companies have pledged to avoid deforestation in their supply chains, but they may source their raw materials from thousands of farms.

When mills or collection facilities bundle crops from many sources, tracing the deforestation history of large-scale purchases becomes difficult.

Rainforest being converted to oil palm plantations in Malaysian Borneo. Mills in areas with high deforestation rates would be considered to be of higher risk of involvement in deforestation. Mill owners proactively sourcing from farms that retain their forest could use the tool to verify their deforestation-free status. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

“If we’re going to tackle this problem, we need to get all of the actors involved,” said Luiz Amaral, project co-lead and director of Global Solutions for Commodities & Finance at World Resources Institute.

In response, Global Forest Watch (GFW) has created a new tool, called GFW Pro, to help commodities suppliers, buyers, investors and investigators monitor supply chains, assess risk of deforestation by producers of their commodities, and verify compliance with environmental laws and commitments to avoid further deforestation.

The new tool facilitates the monitoring of supply chains by detecting deforestation related to commodities production, thereby promoting more sustainable commodities agriculture.

“The tool is not only useful to monitor deforestation, but it has shifted the paradigm of the palm industry and uplifted transparency of the whole sector,” said Audrey Lee, a sustainability manager at Olam, a Singapore-based agri-business company. “Today, GFW Pro could help companies to monitor more than 1,800 palm mills at any time, and we should apply the same technology on other crops to ensure forest conservation at the landscape level.”

Mapping forest change from farms to portfolios

The tool helps each user monitor deforestation and fires around individual farms or scale up the monitoring to whole portfolios of suppliers, sourcing areas (called supply sheds), or political jurisdictions.

GFW Pro assesses fine-scale changes in tree cover in the areas selected by each user through the interactive maps that are the major feature of Global Forest Watch.

The maps provide regularly updated information on changes in tree cover, as well as fires, and other environmental conditions for individual pixels of 30 meters x 30 meters (98 feet x 98 feet), globally.

According to Amaral, the tool incorporates more than 30 datasets, the primary one being the University of Maryland’s Landsat-based global forest change map. The map’s 30-meter x 30-meter pixels are sufficiently fine-scale, Amaral told Mongabay, since “no one clears less than one-tenth of a hectare [0.25 acres]” when converting forest to commodities crops.

GFW Pro integrates the fire and forest change occurrence information, updated roughly every two weeks, within the area uploaded by the user.  This may be at the level of individual farms, or an aggregate of farms representing a portfolio of investments or suppliers.

Built for businesses

Based on consultations with commodities companies and financial institutions, the GFW team designed GFW Pro to address the needs of businesses. For instance, the tool presents the information in graphs and charts on a dashboard, so that business users can monitor their production areas as they monitor changes in stock prices. The dashboards can include trend assessments and risk ratings, depending on the user’s interest.

To use GFW Pro, an organization sets up a secure account, which any number of registered individual users can access.  The individual users can upload thousands of point or polygon locations, representing farms, collection facilities, and other supply chain locations.

After uploading the location information, users can view data on recent and historic deforestation in their supply area, as well as active fires and protected areas.

“Users need to look at hundreds, if not thousands, of locations at once, instead of one at the time,” Amaral said. “Complex geospatial analysis…now can be available in a couple of minutes or hours (depending on how big the dataset is) and be performed by anyone, including non-GIS [Geographic Information System] experts.”

This summary graphic from GFW Pro shows a subset of one company’s palm oil mills in South America, the risk that a given mill is involved in regional deforestation, and the values of the land around them. Image courtesy of World Resources Institute.

With broad-scale information, users can assess the likelihood (risk) that buying from farms in a given area will lead to deforestation.

“We know that a processing mill has a radius of a certain size around them from which they buy,” Amaral said, so monitoring deforestation in this limited area can identify “high-risk” mills, those surrounded by areas experiencing deforestation and therefore most likely involved in deforestation. A mill interested in retaining its status in a company’s supply chain can use the tool to show that it is not buying from areas facing deforestation.

With fine-scale information, users can assess actual compliance with commitments to avoid deforestation by their suppliers and, thus, by their own company.  If forest is not being cleared on a farm or concession, “then there’s no question,” according to Amaral.

Amaral emphasized that a company should not necessarily just move away from a risky area. “That does not help to tackle the problem,” he said. “In my opinion, one should engage and tackle the problem. Obviously, it does need to generate impact, one cannot just keep engaging forever.” He added that they hoped that GFW Pro can help demonstrate that engagement can reduce deforestation even in high-risk supply areas over time.

For example, Olam mapped more than 1,000 oil palm, cocoa, timber and rubber facilities using GFW Pro. The company determined that nearly half its palm supply was at risk of causing deforestation. Lee told Mongabay that Olam has used the analysis to engage and request action from both its direct and indirect palm suppliers. “It has resulted in us changing and discontinuing with some suppliers – from an initial 48 to only 13 direct suppliers today,” she added.

“We hope that we’re really increasing the cost of inaction by making it so easy and accessible to monitor,” Amaral said. “Everybody can monitor now.”

The developers incorporated feedback from 70 companies and other organizations that have tested GFW Pro since last October. GFW Pro also integrates with existing GFW tools and analyses to allow researchers, civil society organizations, or journalists to investigate deforestation associated with actions by commodities suppliers and consumers. The desktop application is currently available in English and Spanish and is expected to be translated to other languages in the future.

How palm oil from multiple plantations finds its way to your chocolate bar and many other consumer products, including bread, pastries, cereal, peanut butter, cosmetics, shampoo, and cleaning products. Image courtesy of World Resources Institute.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

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