Deforestation: is it time for a new strategy to save the world's rain forests?

As we head up the broad cocoa-coloured river, massive barges laden with logs cut from the huge plantations of acacia that sprawl across Sumatra's peaty eastern lowlands are tugged in the opposite direction.

Until a few decades ago, and in some places just a few months, this unique place was covered with dense natural rainforests. Now it is fragmented with the last remaining areas under intense pressure from expanding oil palm and rubber plantations, logging, mining and plantings of fast-growing trees to supply paper and pulp mills. On top of all this, there is massive illegal encroachment into the forests by small-scale farmers.

Sumatra's lowland rainforests are among the most biologically diverse on Earth. As they have dwindled in extent, many once widespread animals and plants have become endangered. Sumatran rhinos, tigers and elephants are among them, and so are several primates, including orangutans and gibbons.

The biological importance of these forests, and the billions of tonnes of carbon in the peat beneath them, has attracted the attention of foreign aid agencies, campaigners and conservationists from around the world. But despite a vast investment of money and effort, the destruction continues.

The inability of government to implement its own rules, corruption and the demand for land to expand lucrative crops to meet booming demand are all on the list, so is the system that governs how concessions should be managed. Government wants tax revenues and growth, so there is official pressure on companies to clear land for financially rewarding activities. All this tends to trump conservation goals, as WWF has found at its flagship Tesso Nilo reserve.

Despite investments of tens of millions of dollars from the group's donors, this large area, set aside some years ago for nature in central Sumatra, has been largely destroyed, mostly through encroachment by farmers. I flew over the reserve in a helicopter and saw palls of smoke rising above the blackened logs that covered miles of burnt forest. Between the destroyed trees, lines of newly planted oil palm sprouted.

While environmental groups have found it difficult to target their international campaigns on smallholder encroachments such as those that have wrecked Tesso Nilo, they have had some success with attacks on large companies. One is Indonesia's Asia Pulp and Paper (APP). With concessions covering about 2.6m hectares across Sumatra and Borneo, APP has undertaken large-scale forest clearance to make way for plantations to feed its massive pulp mills.

In 2001, I helped launch the Friends of the Earth campaign against this company. The aim was to raise awareness about the rapid replacement of natural forests with plantations and to persuade APP to stop doing that by getting investors to raise issues with the company. Later on Greenpeace took the lead, running one of the most effective market-based environmental campaigns of recent times. One by one APP's major customers, including Disney, Staples, Tesco, Walmart and Nestle, decided to meet their paper needs from other sources. The commercial pressure on APP became intense.

For years APP's reaction was to invest heavily in green-washing and to announce targets it failed to meet. Then in February 2013 APP adopted a new Forest Conservation Policy (FCP). Among other things this promises to end the use of natural forest fibre in paper-making and instead to rely only on wood from plantations. As soon as APP and its suppliers switched off their bulldozers, Greenpeace suspended its campaign and said it would closely monitor progress against APP's stated aims.

When APP announced its new FCP, my colleagues and I who co-founded the sustainability advisory group Robertsbridge, decided that we'd work with the company to help them implement their plan. We believed APP was serious and that the successful implementation of its policy would put pressure on competitors, including rival company April, which continues to clear large areas of Sumatran rainforest.

But while we saw the new plan as a lever to shift the market toward more positive outcomes, others have instead kept up the attack on APP. WWF and Rainforest Action Network are among those who continue with campaigns to emphasise the company's poor track record and minor breaches in the new FCP. One result of this has been to discourage paper buyers to re-engage with APP, even though it has, according to Greenpeace, largely so far done what it said it would.

Meanwhile the forest burns, not because of what APP is doing, but because of encroachment and the activities of other companies who have no intention of stopping deforestation. It was interesting to see a large area of intact forest (the Biosphere Reserve at Giam Siak Kecil) not being encroached and burnt, in part because it had been deliberately buffered by huge APP plantations. The contrast with Tesso Nilo was striking.

But despite its efforts to change, APP is being set up to fail, not least because campaigners insist on zero deforestation at the same time as stronger community land rights. While in principle laudable, stronger rights can inadvertently assist land grabbers in clearing more forests under the guise of community development.

Who is to know who has legitimate claims, compared with spurious demands made by in-comers looking to make fortunes from oil palm and logging? And even when it is a genuine claim for community customary land, if the demand from that community is to convert natural forest or peat land, what should be done? Should the protection of the forest or the rights of the community be the priority?

Greenpeace has run a brilliant campaign, but it seems to me that some others need to make better strategic choices. This includes in relation to whether they can credibly argue for both stronger community rights and zero deforestation, whether they can expect companies to make expensive policy changes that receive no encouragement or the kind of market reward that would ensure economic sustainability of the business, and how they can better approach the massive issues linked to weak governance and corruption.

If I were running campaigns to save what remains of Sumatra's dwindling forests, there are four priorities I'd pursue. One is a market campaign to shift April out of cutting more natural forest. Second, I'd raise international pressure to persuade the government of Indonesia to sort out the chaotic governance of its forests. Third, I'd reach out to groups working on social development to find stronger common cause with them, so that forest protection and community development are better aligned. Fourth, I'd campaign to stop a coalmine road being driven through RSPB's Harapan Reserve. If built this will likely mark the end of RSPB's valiant effort to save a substantial area of lowland forest and mark a very serious setback to future efforts restore areas of degraded forest. It is surprising how little been has been said on this by campaigners.

Conservation resources are too tight to be wasted on vendettas against old adversaries. Better to be strategic, address the real priorities and recognise that in the new context some companies can be powerful allies.

This article was first published by The Guardian November 8th 2013.