BOGOTA, Nov 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombia's palm oil industry and big businesses have pledged to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains as the country battles to reverse the growing destruction of its tropical rainforests.
The commitment signed this week makes Colombia the first country in the world to launch its own chapter of the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, a global effort by governments, companies and non-governmental organisations.
The TFA 2020 Colombia Alliance aims to help businesses shift to deforestation-free supply chains by sharing best practices, monitoring forest clearance and training small farmers in sustainable agricultural methods.
It also aims to promote development of certified sustainable products from beef to palm oil for consumers to buy in local supermarkets.
Rainforests in Colombia, Latin America's largest palm oil producer, are coming under increasing pressure, and deforestation is rampant.
Deforestation in the country's Amazon region rose 23 percent and across the country rose by 44 percent from 2015 to 2016, said Vidar Helgesen, Norway's environment minister.
Norway is one of four main donor countries, along with the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, backing the TFA 2020, an initiative hosted by the World Economic Forum.
"These numbers have been higher than what we expected and that's why it is important to intensify efforts," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Getting the private sector to commit to deforestation-free supply chains is a "critical part of the puzzle" to protect forests, he said.
"This is the first time in Colombia we see the government and the private sector joining forces like this," he said.
"My hope and belief is that this partnership, will find ways of ensuring that it is not only an agreement on paper but something that will happen in practical terms."
Protecting forests helps cut carbon emissions, a key driver of climate change. When forests are degraded or destroyed, the carbon stored in the trees is released into the atmosphere.
Colombia is home to a swathe of rainforest roughly the size of Germany and England combined and has declared a goal of zero net deforestation by 2020 and halting the loss of all natural forest by 2030.
Its rainforests have been increasingly threatened since a 2016 peace deal to end its decades-long civil war opened up former conflict areas to business, agriculture and development, Helgesen said.
Trees also are being cleared for cattle ranching, illegal mining and growing coca - the raw ingredient for cocaine.
Signing up with the Alliance are about 25 palm oil producers and buyers, Colombia's Federation of Oil Palm Growers and Alqueria S.A., its third-largest dairy company. Also signing up are retail giant Grupo Exito and international companies operating in Colombia such as consumer goods company Unilever.
"The launch of the TFA 2020 Colombia Alliance is important as a strengthening mechanism for joint action in Colombia to reach our deforestation goals," said Mariana Villamizar, a spokeswoman for Grupo Exito.
Producers and buyers from the beef, dairy and timber sectors are expected to join the partnership soon.
Each company will set targets to achieve zero deforestation across their often complex supply chains, and the government and NGOs will help monitor deforestation.
Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, editing by Ellen Wulfhorst.
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