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The coming of age of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (POLICY)

I remember when I was as that awkward age of 12: no longer a kid and not yet a teenager. Roundtable-champion Adam Harisson, until recently representing WWF in the palm oil industry, beautifully compared the roundtable with a teenager reluctant to listen to his parents, yet always full of surprises.

The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) – the biggest certification body and platform to promote sustainable palm oil production – has become an adolescent and with adolescence comes responsibility. Being 12 years old, having grown up to become one of the biggest certification bodies in the world representing 17% of globally certified palm oil production and with over 3000 members, you do not only have to just finish your homework, there are actual results to be delivered.

Let’s call a spade a spade

The RSPO has made valuable progress through commitments to end deforestation and to respect the rights of farmers and communities. But, coming of age means starting to walk the talk and be responsible and accountable for following through in practice and despite progress there is a lot of growing up still to be done on implementation.

Real change requires discipline in finding comprehensive yet practical solutions which protect people and forests while balancing that with economic needs. This is not easy and increasingly many people are asking if the RSPO can help us get closer solving the equation of respecting rights and balancing needs.

Certification matters. The wave of company commitments to no deforestation, no planting on vulnerable peat lands and no exploitation of farmers and communities sends a strong signal that “business as usual” is not a viable option.  But the RSPO also needs to now step up and show that it is ready to really implement policy in practice.

For example, PepsiCo has recently committed to conduct an independent assessment around both human rights and deforestation risks in its palm oil supply from Indonesia by the end of 2017. Also, Mondelez has recently updated their palm oil action plan which requires suppliers to not only report on practices related to their own farm and supplies to Mondelez, but also all the palm oil that gets traded through third-party suppliers and to other clients. This is potentially very powerful as it taps into the next tier of supplier engagement.

So what is next on this teenager’s itinerary?

Humility and transparency hold the key to success: The reality of implementation is messy and not as straightforward as the policy suggests. It requires humility in acknowledging where to take own action and where more actors are needed. Land conflicts are often complex and multilayered and require individual companies stepping up and relevant stakeholders to be involved. Regular and open communication helps to be candid about where work needs to be done. It opens the floor to engage on the gaps and challenges. Ultimately, it’s not about what you know but what you do with it and how you communicate around it.

Going deep and wide: Sector transformation can take place through the RSPO but also alongside other innovative projects. Through collaboration, the RSPO can achieve scale and depth as well as innovation through initiatives such as the Palm Oil Innovation Group, High Carbon Stock Approach, and FAIR company-community partnerships. When the RSPO’s puts energy behind these it can get more governments, companies and smallholders on the bandwagon and closing the verification and implementation gap. This includes ensuring your complaints mechanisms and dealing with grievances is continuously improving and invested in.

Use what’s already out there: Having a standard is one thing, having it credibly verified is another. Workable social auditing and community-consultation tools, guidance and solutions are out there and ready to be implemented. The problems are not unique for palm oil. Audits should become diagnostic tools to identify gaps and non-compliance to feed into continuous improvements.

Acknowledge and use differing roles & responsibilities: When we work on implementation of policies, where do companies and NGOs need each other and where should their roles be separate or reinforcing? NGOs have the responsibility to hold companies and governments to account and point the direction of travel to alternatives. On the ground change begs for a space where these complexities can be unpacked. The RSPO, as such, should provide a safe space for land rights defenders to take part in finding (re)solutions.

The coming years will be fundamental in proving that certification and multi-stakeholder platforms like the RSPO are truly a stepping stone for wider transformation of agricultural supply chains. Oxfam will continue to play a role in both encouraging the industry to improve policy and practice while contributing to positive emerging best practice examples to achieve change on the ground. Oxfam is nearly 80 years old, young at heart and ready to do its own homework while peeking at and examining the work of others.

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