USAID Supports Commercial Response to Deforestation in Southeast Asia

 In News

BANGKOK, April 7 2021 – The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Green Invest Asia and the U.S. Forest Service hosted a March 31 webinar with agribusiness leaders and investors to discuss commercial  implications of a recently published scientific study on commodity-driven forest loss in Southeast Asia.

Increased cultivation and exports of commodities from Southeast Asia including palm oil, nuts, cereals and fruits contributed to the conversion of 9.5 million hectares (one hectare is roughly the size of one football field) of forests into cropland from 2000-2015. If these forests were still standing, there would be 85 percent less carbon dioxide emissions released.

“We are here to bridge research and its commercial application to change the trajectory of deforestation in Southeast Asia,” said Sarah Marlay, U.S. Forest Service’s Asia Pacific program manager.

Using high-resolution satellite imagery, scientists from Spatial Informatics Group and U.S. Forest Service examined 7,600 sample plots of land in Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam to detect what crops were grown on deforested land from 2000-2015, and the impact on the release of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions into the atmosphere.

Researchers found that while palm oil drove deforestation in Indonesia, rubber and pulpwood were the main causes in Thailand during the period studied; herbaceous crops like cereals and cassava were main drivers in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and the Philippines.

The trade volume of fruits more than tripled in the region in this same period, cereal exports more than quintupled, and nuts and palm oil exports multiplied more than eight times. Herbaceous crops were behind most commodity-driven forest loss – three million hectares – slightly more than palm oil.

Steven G. Olive, the head of USAID’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific, noted the urgency for business to act on findings: “’Climate-smart’ has gone from being a buzzword to business survival strategy…with each climate calamity, the realization grows that climate risk is an investment risk. Southeast Asia is critical to reaching any emission goal due to investors and businesses investing and operating in this region and above-average greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.”

Risks vs opportunities

The scientific panel explained how “remote-sensing” technology – where special cameras  from aircraft or satellites collect images – used in the study can help businesses avoid sourcing from deforesting operations, plan where to safely expand cultivation, audit company environmental commitments with more precision and calculate carbon footprints.

Wouter de Smet, Nestlé’s Green Coffee Manager for Africa, Oceania and Asia regions said such technology not only helped Nestlé monitor risks (for example, of encroachment into), but also to identify opportunities, such as planting trees. “We go beyond risk to look at opportunities.”

Researchers recommended ways the land can capture more carbon, or prevent its release, including climate-smart cultivation practices like intercropping (the planting of more than one crop together) and agroforestry (planting/conserving trees alongside crops).

In agroforestry, yields of a primary crop decrease when farmers plant secondary crops. Not all farmers can take the loss in income from the first crop, while waiting on new income streams, said Florian Reimer, Chief Operating Officer with Kennemer Eco Solutions, which works with smallholder farmers in the Philippines. “We need a balance between environmental impact and economic losses.”

On formerly forested lands the study analyzed, some 140 million hectares were planted with only one cash crop, while 129 million hectares included tree planting. What has historically been considered a gap – lack of trees and crop diversification – is actually an investment opportunity, said Christy Owen, head of USAID Green Invest Asia, which supports corporates reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their agriculture and forestry operations in Southeast Asia, while also supporting suppliers to meet investment and sourcing environmental requirements.

Southeast Asia is a key commodity-sourcing region, with most of the world’s coconut, rice, rubber, and a large share of coffee coming from the countries studied.

Olive, with USAID, noted how “Southeast Asia is critical to reaching any emission goal, anywhere in the world…It will take a whole-of-supply chain approach to reach net zero, and USAID looks to support low-emission business models that can scale.”

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