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Policy blog: Six things you missed from this year’s Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil

By Willemijn De Iongh

While on my way to my first ever palm oil conference in Kuala Lumpur I promised myself to keep calm and learn about palm. There are records of palm oil being used in West Africa as far back as 5,000 years ago. Palm oil can thus be considered one of the earliest globally traded commodities in world history. Neat huh? So what else did I learn at this year’s RSPO?

Palm oil is a billion-dollar industry which provides direct income and jobs for millions of people in over 25 countries. Only two countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, cover over 80 percent of global production. Palm oil is deeply integrated into our everyday global food system but its complex supply chains are also known for their contribution to deforestation, habitat loss, human rights abuses and land conflicts.

Can we transform this conflict-ridden sector into something more positive? That, my friends, is the goal of sector initiatives such as the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Even though this roundtable is not perfect given the various instances where RSPO members are violating agreed rules, it is the only widespread mechanism for verification of good practice and many consider the RSPO to be the most relevant platform for mainstreaming change.

Nearly all of the Big 10 food & beverage companies rely on palm oil for many of their products, together using 6 percent of the world’s palm oil supply, nearly 3.5 million metric tons. Yet, their influence reaches far beyond that, as these companies have the economic clout to drive more sustainable practices throughout the palm oil supply chain.

What was hot and what was not?

People’s Movement against the haze: The conference was opened by a group of young singing activists standing up for their right to breathe fresh air. Recent burnings of peat lands has covered most of South East Asia in a thick haze resulting in over 500,000 people being hospitalized with respiratory complaints.

  • HOT: This is one of the first popular public campaigns trying to mobilize South-East Asian consumers and citizens to speak out against recurring fires and hazes.
  • NOT SO HOT:  RSPO members and the wider sector needs to put a lot of effort into peat management in existing plantations and local government authorities need to improve enforcement of laws to restrict burning and expansion on peat.

Fair and Free Labor: For the first time, the RSPO conference hosted a session focusing only on labor rights and forced labor in palm oil supply chains. Over 26 civil society organizations presented their Fair & Free Labor recommendations to the RSPO. This is critical because among the estimated 3.7 million workers in the industry are thousands of child laborers and workers who face dangerous and abusive conditions as well as forced labor.

  • HOT: This is the first time this issue was properly addressed and there seemed to be a lot of energy and receptivity to start to tackle these critical social issues within the RSPO.
  • NOT SO HOT: So far RSPO auditing processes have proven insufficient in tackling these issues.

Finding convergence on forests: In order to translate ‘zero deforestation’ commitments into meaningful forest conservation efforts on the ground, several initiatives have popped up (High Carbon Stock Approach, the High Carbon Stock Study as well as the SenSor) to push the RSPO and the wider sector forward on meeting no deforestation goals.

  • HOT: In essence, all high carbon stock (HCS) approaches boil down to improved land use planning and better identification of HCS forests while ensuring that the rights and livelihoods of farming communities are respected.
  • NOT SO HOT: The collective right of smallholders and host communities to  free, prior and informed consent is not always upheld in land deals  nor integrated into land use planning approaches. Identifying land and forests that need to be conserved without consulting the people that live on it, has the danger of pushing already marginalized and powerless groups off their land.

Traceability: Finding out where palm oil comes from is not an easy task but an increasing number of companies are publishing online ‘dashboards’ to report on how far they’ve gotten on mapping mills and sometimes even plantations (see dashboards from Wilmar and Sime Darby).

  • HOT: Traceability is a great way for the sector to transform and a number of traceability toolkits were presented to enable investors, NGOs, companies and others to find all of the information in one place (SPOTT and Knownsources for example), this will facilitate increased transparency throughout the sector.
  • NOT SO HOT: So far traceability efforts still provide insufficient information on the links between buyers and growers. This crucial link remains unseen in many traceability efforts.

RSPO Next: Is a voluntary addendum to the core RSPO Principles & Criteria. This addendum is for “frontrunner” companies with ambitious policy commitments to gain guidance and backing by the RSPO.  Specifically the addendum provides guidance to RSPO systems and audits in relation to recent ambitious sector commitments to stopping deforestation, to not planting in peatland  to strengthening Human Rights commitments.

  • HOT: It is good to provide an incentive for companies who want to go further than minimum standards.
  • NOT SO HOT: Through introducing an additional  voluntary add-on the RSPO runs the risk that other RSPO members are not adequately challenged or rewarded for current RSPO efforts.

Jurisdictional approach: There was energy around ‘jurisdictional approaches’ and the potential for ensuring small-scale farmers benefit while the environment is also preserved but without a  common understanding of what this means for managing forest conservation efforts at local, national, and regional scales. This RSPO convening was the first time that government officials joined a panel to discuss their ambition to step forward on this.

  • HOT: Geo-spatial mapping by governments is already taking place and these maps could potentially sync well with similar efforts on high carbon forest mapping as well as forest certification efforts (such as Forest Stewardship Council and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes) because it all relates to the land use. Also, “land swops” can be facilitated better.
  • NOT SO HOT: If the aim is to certify and distinguish some districts from others, this may result in de-facto exclusion of less progressive districts and ‘giving up on them’ A precautionary approach with strong rights based criteria needs to be followed by all stakeholders involved.

One of the most important personal take-aways was that even though opinions on RSPO differ, there seems to be a growing consensus around the need for a more integrated and inclusive approach on how land rights or important forests are identified and respected. This includes a strong call for respecting human rights, conservation of forests but also ensuring farming communities and smallholders become part of the solution.

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