Towards Responsible Stewardship in Southeast Asia’s Palm Oil Industry: The potential of The Forest Trust’s novel palm oil strategy to transform an industry after decades of ineffectual international efforts

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Benjamin Cashore
Essay Abstract: 
Despite decades of international attention and efforts to reduce deforestation driven by palm oil production, environmental degradation continues to plague Southeast Asia’s tropical forests. Three subsequent analyses seek to explain the slow progress of several approaches to influencing the palm oil industry and to evaluate whether The Forest Trust’s novel strategy has any unique potential to influence the behavior of firms. The paper applies Bernstein and Cashore’s four pathways of influence framework that identifies four causal processes through which transnational efforts might shape domestic or firm-level policies and practices: international rules, norms & discourse, markets, and direct access. Part I explains the challenges met by past approaches and generates insights to inform future efforts and guide the evaluation of TFT’s novel strategy. Five key themes for consideration emerge: authority & legitimacy, national sovereignty & environmental diplomacy, instrumental interaction & avoiding the race to the bottom, keeping sight of the problem definition, and practicability of implementation. In Part II, analyzing the causal logics and potential outcomes of TFT’s approach reveals that the organization is uniquely comprehensive in its use of the four pathways of influence and manages its position among other actors advantageously. Finally, Part III is a contextual evaluation of TFT’s strategy in consideration of lessons learned from the limitations of past approaches bolsters the favorable outlook of TFT’s potential but finds that success is contingent on various factors and on whether it continues to interact constructively with ongoing efforts and existing mechanisms.