Rainforest monitoring systems to combat deforestation

rainforest monitoring systems
© iStock/SeppFriedhuber

Multinational companies which rely on palm oil are investing in satellite technology to monitor deforestation in at-risk areas.

By remotely monitoring the destruction of swathes of rainforest in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, the companies – including Mondelez, Nestle and Unilever – hope to identify and address problem areas and remove unsustainably sourced palm oil from the supply chain. Palm oil is an ingredient in nearly 50 per cent of all packaged consumable goods, including cosmetics, foods and cleaning products; as well as biofuels, though the EU will begin phasing out palm oil as a fuel component from 2030. While the consumption of palm oil contributes less overall to deforestation than other widely consumed goods such as beef or soy, it has received more coverage due to its impact on biodiverse habitats.

With companies under growing pressure to demonstrate their sustainability credentials, global industry body the Consumer Goods Forum has set the target for consumer businesses to reduce deforestation to net zero by 2020. Companies, activist groups and experts are at odds over how to achieve this goal; with critics saying monitoring deforestation is not the same as actively preventing it. Phil Aikman, campaign director at environmental pressure group Mighty Earth, told Reuters: “They are trying to take it into their own hands on how [deforestation is] monitored…because they haven’t gotten their supply chains under control at this time.”

Wilmar, a palm oil supplier which provides 35 per cent of the world’s consumable palm oil, has been working with a pilot of the satellite tracking programme Global Forest Watch (GFW) Pro – set to launch officially in summer 2019 as a free-to-use deforestation monitoring platform – to identify and sanction deforestation offenders. Ginny Ng, global conservation lead at Wilmar, said: “In the past, we have tried to engage, engage, engage; [but] some suppliers are taking advantage of that. So now we’re going to suspend first, and then we will chat.”

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