Protecting forests by supporting palm oil suppliers in Mexico

The exact drivers of deforestation in southern Mexico are being identified by Starling – creating a path for leading palm oil players to transform the industry from the ground up

Thirty years ago, the municipalities of Marqués de Comillas and Benémerito, down in the south of Mexico, right on the border with Guatemala, were about 90 percent forest. Fast forward to the year 2000 and 30 percent of this had been cleared; but 12 years later the region was more pasture than it was forest. Today, less than 40 percent of what stood in 1989 remains. This year, satellite innovation called Starling has been used to help protect the remaining forest.

Picture courtesy of Thelma Datter

This work began with Mexican palm oil refiner Oleofinos using Starling to monitor forests across 240,000 hectares of land in this region. The overall aim here is to protect forests, but first we needed to understand what’s driving deforestation – this is what Starling allows us to do.

The satellite imagery Starling produces shows where forest has been lost, and continues to be lost in the area. These maps differentiate between forest, palm oil plantations, and other crops, allowing us to track land use conversion over time. So with the knowledge of the whereabouts of their suppliers, Oleofinos can quite literally get a picture of how and what their suppliers are doing; and in time set expectations with those suppliers around forest protection.

Knowing forests were disappearing but not knowing why

Before this Starling pilot, we knew that forest was disappearing, and disappearing fast. Just take a look at historical Google Earth images and you can see how quickly the landscape has changed. In the 1980s, the Mexican government promoted migration to the region through land grants in attempts to combat the stem of refugees fleeing the Guatemalan civil war. Forest conversion has happened in small patches, through a combination of farms expanding and a growing population. Talk with farmers in the region and they’ll explain that the cattle came first – it’s the easiest way to clear land if you don’t have access to big machinery – then came agricultural crops: beans, corn and palm oil.

But what we didn’t know was precisely what was driving the deforestation at any given time period. We couldn’t track the progression of forest to pasture to palm, or any other combination of land use change. And we certainly couldn’t detect 5, 10 and 15 hectare patches of forest loss, which is key in this complex patchwork of hundreds of smallholder farmers – the average palm oil farm in the region is just 11 hectares in size. The combination of these factors had made it difficult for concerned stakeholders at any level of the palm oil supply chain to take action. Starling has changed this.

New and detailed land use understanding

We now have a detailed understanding of past and present land use in the region. For example, Starling has shown us that in 2018 alone, 2,290 hectares of forest have been lost – almost all in small patches. This data allows us to support Oleofinos as they seek to create deforestation-free palm oil supply chains, with Starling having already given us the baseline information we need to develop a strategy for conservation in the region.

Using Starling to monitor change

Next, we will be embarking on a landscape scale High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA) process – the first of its kind in Mexico. This process will allow us to determine where to focus conservation efforts. The approach identifies different land cover types such as high-density forest, young regenerating forest, scrub and open land.

Through a series of field visits that uses the identified land cover results and other critical data on biodiversity, cultural heritage and stakeholder priorities, the HCSA process will show us where forest protection is an imperative and where degraded land offers the potential for farmers to expand their crops. This is crucial as we are talking about a rural area with some of the highest poverty rates in the country, with the long-term livelihoods of many reliant on land that can be farmed.

In the long term, the resulting HCS map will allow Oleofinos to set clear best practice expectations for suppliers regarding agricultural expansion. Starling monitoring will verify how these expectations are met, along with subsequent engagement if they are not. The aim isn’t to punish the smallholder farmers who dominate this landscape, but instead, to support them through the transition to deforestation-free palm oil and so helping to transform the wider palm oil industry in Mexico. Starling can play a big role in this.

This Starling pilot was funded by Nestlé. The HCS work will be funded by Grupo Bimbo, (the process has begun, with the first field visit taking place in December).

For more details on Starling go to www.starling-verification.com/