BARCELONA, Dec 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Some of the biggest companies that produce, trade and use palm oil will try out a new method for balancing forest protection with the need to allow developing economies to grow, which would allow a limited amount of land to be cleared for plantations.
The High Carbon Stock Science Study, released this week, was commissioned by some of the largest players in the palm oil industry and conducted by an independent panel of scientists.
The methodology it proposes, called HCS+, would conserve all forests that store more than 75 tonnes of carbon per hectare above ground - including old-growth forests and well-established secondary forests - as well as forests on peat and other organic soils.
Companies using the system would be expected to offset the carbon released when cutting down trees in permitted areas by setting aside other forests or through the oil palm they plant.
The method also pledges to protect human rights and improve living standards for local people.
Jonathon Porritt, co-chair of the study steering committee, said HCS+ "gives the industry a unique opportunity to reconcile its wholly legitimate economic interests with the critical need to protect forests, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and support the rights and wellbeing of local communities and smallholders".
The study is clear that the method aims to minimise deforestation, rather than rule it out completely.
In recent years, a growing number of multinational companies have pledged to reduce or remove deforestation and forest degradation in their supply chains.
Simon Lord, head of sustainability for palm oil producer Sime Darby, one of eight major companies backing the carbon stock study, said "no deforestation" promises may be unrealistic.
"Many (consumer firms) made commitments of zero deforestation with no idea of how they were going to do that, and (have) realised it is horribly complicated," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The HCS+ methodology allows some degree of deforestation "as part of a greater good", as does a competing approach that places greater emphasis on forest conservation, Lord said.
The Malaysian state of Sabah's forestry department has committed to trialling the HCS+ methodology in the field. Companies that commissioned the study will do the same, with some also planning to test the other approach alongside it.
The results are expected in the next two to three years.
Sime Darby's Lord said he would try out both methods in Liberia, and hoped to be able to see how much land would be available for planting palm within six months of starting.
"I know that we can make a difference - but I don't want to make a difference either exploiting people or indeed exploiting ecosystem services, and I am trying to strike the balance," he said. "There is no easy solution on this one."
Lord, who worked for many years with oil palm-growing communities in Papua New Guinea, said small-scale farmers of the palm that yields the cheap, edible oil should not be marginalised for the sake of preserving forests.
The new HCS+ methodology is designed to consider their land-use needs and reduce poverty.
"All of your smallholders have to be considered up front now, and not tagged on afterwards with very little care and attention given to them," Lord said.
The methodology has been developed with input from a range of green groups and organisations working to protect the rights of people living in and working with forests.
Some of them have also been involved in working on the longer-standing HCS Approach, which holds that young regenerating forest should be protected.
By comparison, under the HCS+ system, young forests with less than 75 tonnes of above-ground carbon could potentially be available for development.
According to the study, this is the main difference between the two methods. Otherwise they have much in common, including a requirement to gain consent from communities for plantations, mapping land, and allowing development on low-carbon scrubland.
Some companies, including consumer goods giant Unilever, are hoping the two methods can be combined into one, making application easier.
Lord said it was not yet certain that would happen, but it would be "common sense".
"We as practitioners on the ground have to make this work," he said. (Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)