One of Indonesia’s biggest palm oil producers, a company called Astra Agro Lestari, yesterday announced a new commitment to stopping deforestation and preventing agricultural burning throughout its supply chain.
Earlier this year, the envrionmental group Forest Heroes used a drone camera to document clear-cutting that was happening on land managed by Astra Agro Lestari. Indonesia has had a high rate of rainforest loss in the past decade, as trees are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations and other export crops. The video went viral, prompting an outcry from around the world, as this deforestation not only threatens endangered species but also contributes to global climate change.
Activists also pressured other businesses owned by Astra Agro Lestari’s parent company, conglomerate Jardines Matheson, including Pizza Hut and the luxury hotel chain Mandarin Oriental. Spoofing ads for the Mandarin Oriental, Forest Heroes created a public awareness campaign featuring endangered Sumatran elephants and the catchphrase “She’s Not a Fan.” The non-profit SumOfUs also organized campaigns outside of Mandarin Oriental hotels.
Back in June, Astra Agro Lestari issued a memorandum on cutting down more forest, but until this week’s announcement it was unclear how serious or long-term the company’s commitment to ending deforestation would be.
“We are very encouraged by Astra’s turn-around,” said Anja Lillegraven of Rainforest Foundation Norway in a press statement. Rainforest Foundation Norway worked with Astra to create the new company policy, which includes protections for forests, peatlands and forest community rights.
Forest Heroes announced the end of its campaign. “In light of this action, Forest Heroes is discontinuing the She’s Not a Fan campaign, effective immediately,” said Ben Cushing, spokesperson for the organization. “We commend Astra for putting forward a serious policy to end deforestation and community exploitation in its palm oil plantations.”
Astra is the second largest palm oil producer in Indonesia, managing 298,000 hectares of palm oil plantations. In the past eight years, the company has expanded its operations at a rate of 10,000 hectares per year. They also have many hectares of undeveloped land, including recent acquisitions of forested areas in West and Central Kalimantan.
A significant percent of palm oil buyers, like Archer Daniels Midland and Wilmar, have also committed to ensuring that ingredients associated with deforestation aren’t part of their supply chain. So producers like Astra may also be getting pressure to quit deforestation from that front as well. The consulting firm AidEnvironment has been hired to analyze Astra’s operations.
Deborah Lapidus, a consultant for Rainforest Foundation Norway, said that while the new policy is strong, there are two areas that could be improved even further. “The first is restoration—we would like to see Astra commit to restoring an amount of land equivalent to what it has destroyed in the past,” she told TreeHugger. “The second is on pesticides—the policy says that Astra will limit pesticide use but the language lacks specifics. Other leading companies have, for example, banned the use of paraquat and other hazardous chemicals.” The company is expected to provide more detail in a forthcoming implementation plan.
Astra’s move could have bigger implications for Indonesia’s palm oil industry, and perhaps also the Indonesian government. Joko Supriyono, the director of Astra, sits on the board of a national palm oil producer's trade association called GAPKI, which has historically shied away from adopting robust environmental standards. Perhaps Astra’s leadership can persuade the trade group as a whole to follow suit.
“Once that happens, the industry will be unified in their commitment to no deforestation, no peatland clearance, and no exploitation agriculture, and the Indonesian government will have no more excuse for inaction,” said Lapidus.