For decades the concept of sustainability in the sector has been linked to expensive certification processes as well as higher price points.
But for sustainable palm oil to truly make its mark in the industry, there is a need to remove the shackles imposed by these ‘outdated concepts’, according to a panel of experts that convened at the recent Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) annual roundtable and symposium.
The panel comprised of RSPO CEO Joseph D'Cruz, Verite Southeast Asia Senior Director Research and Engagement Daryll Delgado, Rainforest Action Network (RAN) Forest Program Director Robin Averbeck and Global Platform for Sustainable Natural Rubber (GPSNR) Director Stefano Savi.
D’Cruz highlighted that a key factor driving this need for simplification is that a large number of palm oil producers in the supply chain are smallholder farmers who lack the support and educational knowledge necessary to fulfil the more complex aspects of this concept.
“The larger firms of course have the resources they need to get certified, and they also have the resources to support smallholders that partner with them, plus there are many groups and NGOs out there investing time and effort to help smallholders,” he told the floor.
“However, if the industry is serious about making sustainability a key concept in the smallholders space, there is a need to develop a more robust sustainable product and concept, from the various aspects of environment, social and also economy [that they are able to grasp and fulfil].
“This will require looking beyond the traditional idea of sustainability equals certification as well as sustainability benefits equals premium pricing – this is not realistic at this stage for many smallholders, and it is very important to devise how to contextualise sustainability for them to reality, which would include giving them better access to buyers, productivity technology, support and so on.
“This is so important considering that the real sustainability challenge is not just to create a global aspiration and models towards sustainability, but to make these into reality and work out how to implement these on the ground.”
Coming from the perspective of land rights, Averbeck highlighted that this is one area where aspirations and reality are not completely in sync, as the producers want the right to make decisions regarding their own land and agree to sustainable production on their own terms, which has not always been the case historically.
“We see a long history of land complaints and producers saying their rights have been violated or that they don’t have the option of saying no to anything without suffering repercussions,” she said.
“This is more coercion than cooperation, especially when many of them want to prioritise keeping their forests and cultures intact, and forcing them to do otherwise is not sustainability.”
Although the so-called ‘oppressors’ may not always have had negative intentions in mind, such as aspirations to improve the smallholders’ productivity or technology access, this may not always come across correctly and the only way to overcome this is not only to be sensitive but to also learn from past mistakes.
“To formalise this learning from past mistakes would involve improving the sustainability standards moving forward when it comes to human rights and preservation,” Delgado added.
“It is an absolute must to look back and learn from the mistakes made before and the lessons already recorded, as there are already some good initiatives that have been implemented so it can only help to build on these and move forward.”
Tools of the trade must be effective
In addition, it is important to ensure that these sustainability standards are developed using knowledge beyond the drawing board or meeting rooms, as the theoretical vs practical understanding on what happens on the ground in plantations can be very different.
“We all know it is crucial for governments to provide the correct regulations, certifications and support [for the industry to grow], but these must also be efficacious,” Savi said.
“Even putting the smallholders in the same room to discuss the development of these does not necessarily mean including them if the whole discussion is carried out using jargon – it would be far easier to bring them into the conversation by speaking straight to them.
“The other thing to consider is that directives and policies are the main tools to effect change – the issue is that as long as there are poverty issues, there is always someone ‘poorest’ there willing to take the place of those who make changes and move forward with sustainable practices, undermining the efficiency of the system, so whether or not these are really the most effective tools is not yet a set conclusion.”