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But as well as providing a unique home for nature, the Leuser ecosystem also provides essential services to millions of Sumatrans.  Their livelihoods and food supply rely on environmental services such as freshwater for irrigation, without which rice production – a staple crop – would collapse.  The forests act as a buffer and as forest degradation increases so do flooding, landslides and other natural disasters that have a devastating effect on the long-term welfare of the population. Sumatra provides an excellent habitat for humans, but there has to be better reconciliation of the cost to nature.  We have to decouple economic development from vested interests, corruption and illegal logging and clearing to stop the Leuser ecosystem and many other pristine landscapes being lost forever.
In November I visited Indonesia to share M&S sourcing policies for palm oil, paper, and viscose with producers in the region.  The aim was to make clear to all stakeholders involved in supplying these materials that M&S customers will not tolerate buying products that contribute to the destruction of carbon rich forests and peatlands, habitat loss and endangering species like the orangutan and rhino.   
This doesn’t mean we don’t understand the need for social and economic development in these regions.  We do.  But we believe that land with lower conservation and carbon values (degraded land) must be prioritised for responsible oil palm and pulpwood development, with the consent of local communities. 
Another objective of this visit was to experience the front-line of forest conservation. I spent some time in the Leuser ecosystem with conservation leaders and campaigners, listening to their experiences and challenges. And figuring out what M&S can do to make a positive contribution to their efforts.  
I met with many inspirational people on my visit.  Shayne McGrath is volunteering with local NGOs who are leading the charge to protect the Leuser conservation area from a proposed plan that would reduce it by almost 50%.  Shayne and a team of dedicated individuals collect information through field investigations and connects with national and international institutions to strengthen land management processes.  Rudi Putra, a native of Aceh, is a biologist whose efforts to combat illegal logging and forest encroachment for palm oil were recently rewarded by the international environmental community; Rudi was last years’ winner of the Island and Island Nations Goldman Environmental Prize in recognition of his work with local communities, police and government officials, to dismantle illegal oil palm plantations inside the Leuser ecosystem. 
So what message do Shayne and Rudi have for M&S and our customers?  Fascinatingly, they say the major culprit is palm oil BUT banning palm oil is not the answer.  Legal, well-managed oil palm plantations can lift people from poverty and provide an incentive for good landscape management and forest conservation & restoration.  It is development that does not meet these standards that has to be stopped. 
When I met Rudi and Shayne, they were deeply concerned about the attempts by the Aceh Parliament to massively reduce the protected areas of the Leuser ecosystem. They are working as part of an alliance of local NGOs (Rainforest Action Network Leuser campaign) to convince the President of Indonesia, his cabinet ministers and the Governor of Aceh to reject the proposed spatial plan and we discussed what M&S could do to help.  I described M&S palm oil and pulp sourcing policies and our recent commitment to ensure that our viscose fabric only comes from companies that do not source from ancient and endangered forests, including the forests of Leuser, and what we’re doing to bring these policies to life. 
Rudi and Shayne agreed that these are essential activities, but asked what can we do beyond our own supply chains?  I explained my role on the Board of Governors of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (, and my efforts to make the standard more ambitious in its protection of carbon rich forests, peatlands and the rights of indigenous and local communities.   Again, thumbs up, but can we do more?
M&S has never been short on ambition so we moved on to discuss the Consumer Goods Forum “zero net deforestation by 2020” commitment. The CGF represents $3 trillion of multi-national Consumer Goods and Retail companies so its reach and influence is substantial.  M&S has a leading role within the CGF through Mike Barry (M&S Director of Sustainability) co-chairing the Sustainability Steering Group, and I play an active role within various deforestation working groups.  We collectively felt this was a key opportunity.  Since I returned I’ve been finalising CGF sourcing guidelines for palm oil and starting to create a roadmap to help retail and consumer goods businesses across the world remove deforestation and conflict commodities from their supply chains.  
No-one is saying these are easy ambitions.  In many regions consumers aren’t as aware as in our own market, which can make it difficult for business to be bold and face into these challenges.  But at M&S we’re clear that deforestation is a non-competitive issue.  Only through business collaboration will we achieve the market transformation needed to have sufficient impact on the ground, including in places like Leuser.  But leadership is needed, and that is what M&S excels at.  So we’re facing into this challenge with confidence and enthusiasm, and a huge thank you to Rudi and Shayne and local communities in Aceh who have to this day been custodians of the Leuser ecosystem! 
This blog was originally posted on the M&S Plan A blog on 22nd January 2015: 

Fiona Wheatley
Sustainable Development Manager, Marks & Spencer
& Co-Chair of the Sustainability Pillar’s Palm Oil Working Group