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Human-Centric Technology Key to Palm Oil's Image Transformation

Agus Purnomo headshotWords by Agus Purnomo
Data & Technology
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Recent articles have asked whether “big brother” technology can clean up palm oil's image. As we edge ever closer to the "no deforestation" targets of 2020 set by major consumer goods (CPG) companies, these same companies are increasingly turning to satellite monitoring technologies as a means to prove that their own supply chains are deforestation-free.

Palm oil, in particular, has been identified as a sector needing an "eye in the sky" approach given its past track record in contributing to global forest loss.

Technology is not a panacea

So is technology the answer we've all been looking for? The short answer is no. Technology can tell you where to look in terms of deforestation happening, but it won't tell you why it is happening and, usually, it won't help you identify who is responsible.

Which is not to dismiss technology's important role in helping us to manage landscapes. As Mark Tercek recently wrote, implementing massive deforestation commitments requires sophisticated tracking and monitoring technology, much of which did not exist, or was not as accessible, prior to the establishment of the 2020 NDPE (No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation) commitments.

Indeed, GAR was among the first palm oil companies to adopt technology not only in the day-to-day monitoring of the performance of our own plantation estates but also in assessing which forests we should set aside for conservation as we piloted the High Carbon Stock Approach. Satellite monitoring and other technologies also play an essential part in our fire prevention strategy, allowing us to quickly identify and then assess hotspots and act to prevent a repeat of 2015's horrific fire season.

Greater affordability and availability have allowed technology like the use of drones to become more commonplace. The labor and time-saving nature of these devices is a key contributor to their uptake. Why not use a drone to conduct boundary monitoring of a conservation zone, when it can do in hours what would have taken significantly more time if people were deployed to walk such boundaries? Having identified and set aside 72,000ha of forest for conservation in line with GAR's Social and Environmental Policy (GSEP), we now use drones to help us ensure those forests are not lost to encroachment or fire.

All of us in the industry need to be more proactive

If technology can help us spot land use change and react more quickly, why isn't it the answer we've all been looking for? Because it is not a tool of prevention. Yes, being able to react more quickly, preventing more harm that may have otherwise been possible without the Big Brother approach, is an important step forward, but you are still reacting to a change in the landscape. For prevention, you need people.

A human-centric approach to the use of technology in agriculture remains necessary if we are to understand the motivations behind deforestation, and even to determine whether something that looks like deforestation on a satellite image is deforestation. Investment in on-the-ground teams who can engage locally to determine what lies behind the land use change is essential to determine whether that "deforestation" is actually the replanting of an existing plantation or farm, or a community garden as opposed to primary forest.

Technology cannot teach farmers new farming practice, nor can it engage a corporate landowner to persuade them to stop the bulldozers and adopt a different approach. Human beings must still play a role in the transformation of the palm oil sector.

That is why GAR invests not only in technology but in prevention and education efforts. Our supply chain transformation team utilizes technology along with human capacity building and engagement to help transform the sector. 

Take for example our commitment to supply chain traceability. Technology plays a vital role in this. Using smartphones and handheld GPS devices linking to an online platform, GAR has achieved 100 percent traceability to plantation (TTP) for its own mills and is now working with its third-party supply chain to achieve the same target by 2020. At the time of writing, we have achieved 62 percent TTP for GAR's supply chain. Solution providers like Geotraceability, Bluenumber, and Koltiva play a pivotal role in helping achieve this target.

Technology cannot replace human relationships

To secure the buy-in of suppliers to use these systems, we first have to invest in relationship and capacity building exercises. It is an investment in trust building. Suppliers want to know that the information they share won't be used to penalize them or to bypass them altogether and go directly to their suppliers. GAR invests in a supplier transformation program that offers those reassurances.

For example, GAR's SMART SEED event brings together more than 100 suppliers annually to discuss issues that, through our risk assessment and traceability engagement, we have identified as common to the sector. For example, human rights and labor regulations in the sector, or how to become certified to national and international standards such as ISPO and RSPO.

Alongside one-to-many education and training events like SMART SEED, GAR teams have conducted more than 90 supplier site visits, where action plans are supported and intensive training and capacity building provided to help suppliers understand and meet the expectations of the global palm oil marketplace. Direct engagement like this has helped us reach agreements that have seen almost 68,000 hectares of forests conserved by our suppliers.

The technology that we are experimenting with to achieve traceability to plantation will also be useful in enabling access to markets and to financing for individual smallholders. Not only can it provide the assurances sought by consumers in developed markets, but it can also play a role in connecting oil palm farmers with organizations that can help them farm better, increasing their production, and to become better business owners, developing other economic opportunities.

As the world, even rural Indonesia, becomes more connected, there are many other productivity increased possibilities that the Internet of Things (IoT) may deliver to farmers and companies alike. Examples include finding alternative transportation means, sources of fertilizer and other agri-inputs and financing schemes for small and medium enterprises. 

Technology is not only about circulating satellites high in the skies. It is also the appropriate technology that E.F. Schumacher once described in Small is Beautiful, where losses can be reduced by modifying buckets, where fertilizers can be trickled through pipes, where drones can help the harvesters on old trees and where the human assets on the ground deliver creativity and ingenuity to solve problems.

If the 'Big Brother' technology to which major consumer goods companies are now turning is used only for the purposes of cutting growers from supply chains, then we are not affecting change in the industry. GAR has a responsibility as a leading player in the Indonesian palm sector to help other growers - especially smallholders - improve yields, meet market expectations and avoid deforestation.

A human-centric approach to technology use is helping us to do just that. Companies sourcing palm oil need to be investing in both solutions - the technological as well as the human capacity building - if we are to see the kind of transformation of the sector, GAR and other industry leaders have been working towards for the past five years.

Image credit: GAR

Agus  Purnomo headshotAgus Purnomo

Agus Purnomo is Managing Director for Sustainability and Strategic Stakeholder Engagement at Golden Agri-Resources (GAR). He has previously held many positions in the government, multilateral institutions and international and national NGOs, including Special Assistant to the President of Indonesia for Climate Change (2010-2014), Special Assistant to the Minister of Environment (2004-2009), the World Bank (2002-2004), Executive Director of WWF Indonesia, and half a dozen other national organizations on sustainable development issues.

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