By Dan Strechay, RSPO
Oil palm is a paradox. It’s a crop that by any measure has created a tremendous amount of both social strife and environmental damage. Be it the destruction of millions of acres of primary forest — on several continents — or the relentless pressure on endangered species such as the Sumatran Tiger, Orangutan, and many other mammals, birds and insects. Many of these animals have even been driven to the edge of extinction.
This is an industry built on a system of agricultural production — the plantation — introduced two millennia ago by the Romans and literally on the backs of slaves. And still today, the supply chain contains forced labor, child labor and human rights abuses. There are countless examples of land grabs by companies as they look to either circumvent local laws or the opposition of the local communities. And we still have local, regional, and national governments making it illegal to publish palm oil concession or plantation maps — further delaying transparency.
Yet at the same time, this same crop — the oil palm — has positive sustainability attributes. Yes, that same oil palm that has caused all of the above.
It’s a perennial oilseed that is productive for approximately 25 years, and it produces fresh fruit bunches all year long — giving farmers a stable yearly income. And, the oil palm has four to 10 times the yield per hectare than other oil seeds. For example, palm is roughly 6 percent of the planted acres of oil seeds, but represents roughly 38 percent of the vegetable oil market.
Additionally, this is a crop that helped pull hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty and empowered the populations of nations like Indonesia and Malaysia. For example, in 1984, almost 72 percent of Indonesians lived on $1.90 a day or less. By 2010, that number dropped to less than 16 percent. For better or worse, palm oil played a large role in this improvement in living standards. Now we see Latin American and African nations looking at these statics and wondering if there isn’t a role for palm oil in their economies, either to alleviate poverty or to diversify their economies.
That’s why it’s so important to ensure palm oil is produced sustainably. It has the ability to help the world’s poorest communities if we strike the right balance between where it is developed and how it is grown.
That’s why — despite the criticism and challenges — we at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) continue to do the work we do every day and push the palm oil industry to transform itself into one that is responsible and sustainable. We know that we must continuously improve; we must work with other organizations to grow the volumes of certified sustainable palm oil that is both produced and bought; and we must innovate based on what we have learned since our founding in 2004.
Continuous Improvement is paramount to our organization as it is all other organizations. We are a member-based, multi-stakeholder organization encompassing the full supply chain that has continued to evolve since our founding. The eight principles of the RSPO Principles & Criteria (P&C) cover social, environmental and economic betterment, with a focus on continuous improvement.
We understood from the outset that we didn’t have all the answers. With the upcoming review and re-adoption of our P&C in 2018, our membership will once again have the ability to demonstrate transparently and openly the constant and steady evolution of the standard. This will happen through a decision-making process driven by consensus, allowing for inclusivity to drive market transformation.
If we consider that today RSPO certifies roughly 20 percent of the palm oil supply, approximately 80 percent is still outside of our certification system. As much as we would like to, we cannot provide oversight of the whole palm oil industry at this time. It is crucial that we all work to bring this 80 percent into what should be the mainstream — responsibly-sourced, certified and sustainable palm oil.
We won’t get there with boycotts of palm oil or by presenting simplified solutions that only fit the Western consuming markets. Our solutions must be inclusive and global in nature.
And we can do that by continuing to innovate our standard while our membership continues to grow. This year will also see the launch of RSPO NEXT credits, a system that rewards growers and millers for implementing a set of voluntary add-on criteria to the standard RSPO P&C.
These enhanced guidelines or add-ons focus on the areas of no deforestation, no fire, no planting on peat, reduction of greenhouse gases, respect for human rights, and transparency. And they are applied at an organization-wide level, including investments, joint ventures and in the company’s wider supply base.
Work is now taking place to certify the first RSPO NEXT plantations in several geographies, which will then launch the RSPO NEXT credits market. We believe there will be robust demand for these credits and that in turn will push even more growers to become RSPO NEXT certified.
Further, we have launched three pilots on what is a new Jurisdictional Approach, or “landscape approach,” to certification. In Sabah, Malaysia, and Central Kalimantan and South Sumatra, Indonesia, we are working to implement certification at the provincial level — not just islands of certification, but whole provinces certified under the RSPO standard.
In Latin America, the government of Ecuador has embraced this approach for the whole of its palm oil industry.
This is a complicated endeavor, but the results thus far have been very encouraging.
We welcome the role of constructive criticism of our organization identifying where we can improve. We believe that we have achieved a lot — not alone but with all stakeholders within our organization — and that we can achieve more as we focus on what’s within our control. At the same time, we will continue working with other stakeholders to grow our mission and membership, always with a focus on continuous improvement, as we foster innovation of the standard and the P&C.
We have a mission to make sustainable palm oil the norm. By our measure, we’re a fifth of the way there. We know that’s not fast enough for some, and even for ourselves. But we also know that is a fifth further along than we were. We will only get there if we all work toward this common goal.
Image credit: Flickr/CIFOR
Dan Strechay is the U.S. Representative, Outreach and Engagement for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).