Earlier this month I joined some 700 people at the 14th RSPO Roundtable, a four-day conference bringing together growers, traders, brands, retailers, civil society organisations and others engaged with the world’s most established sustainable palm oil standard. My key takeaway from RT14? While RSPO remains the best option for all in the industry, there are still challenges to be addressed, including how to implement and improve the RSPO’s core principles in practice.
As my colleague Richard Kan outlined, RT14 was unusually long, setting out an ambitious agenda covering a multitude of topics. Richard advocated for focus, simplicity and discipline to ensure the RSPO achieves its lofty goals. I agree and offer two examples – one from the side meeting programme and one from the General Assembly that follows the RT – that demonstrate the balancing act RSPO members need to strike between conservation, community needs and capacity building.
A reality check for environmental protection
On a late Wednesday afternoon in Bangkok, I witnessed a lively discussion at the High Conservation Value Resource Network (HCVRN) side meeting on HCV 5, which was sponsored by GAR.
The HCVRN is a coalition of plantation companies, environmental and social NGOs. In order to have plantation development without the destruction of natural resources, this coalition defined six HCVs to identify areas of conservation within a concession. HCVs 1-4 describe environmental services or aspects such as biodiversity. HCV 5-6 identify social services from natural resources and HCV 5 refers to “Sites and resources fundamental for satisfying the basic necessities of local communities or indigenous peoples (for livelihoods, health, nutrition, water, etc…), identified through engagement with these communities or indigenous peoples.” Per the RSPO principles, member companies are obliged to conserve all HCV areas in their concessions.
At the meeting my colleague, Dr Gotz Martin, described how conservation of HCV 5 can conflict with conservation of High Carbon Stock (HCS) areas. Let me explain: the HCS Approach is supposed to complement HCV in identifying young regenerating forest areas with potential for conservation value.
GAR and many other leading palm oil companies have pledged to conserve HCS areas. However when it comes to actual practice, in GAR’s experience, HCV 5 areas often overlap with HCS areas resulting in conflicting priorities. Under HCV 5, the community may clear the land for food production. However, under the HCS Approach, the land needs to be preserved in order for the forest to regenerate. How can this be resolved?
In response, participants shared their experiences in Asia, Africa and South America. Suggested solutions ranged from community conservation agreements to re-classifying HCV as community areas, which absolves the company of conservation responsibilities. GAR is currently rolling out its own approach called Participatory Conservation Planning or PCP, where the company and community jointly agree on areas to protect.
Practical solutions – GAR’s joint conservation planning with local community
This discussion illustrates the competing interests between conservation and community and shows that even implementing core RSPO principles is not as straightforward as it seems.
Smallholders and RSPO Procedures
Another lively discussion involved Resolution for the TEMPORARY EXEMPTION FROM THE RSPO NEW PLANTING PROCEDURE FOR SMALLHOLDERS. This procedure requires growers to submit their HCV assessment documents and conservation and plantation development maps. The resolution was proposed by the Indonesian Growers Caucus which raised concerns about smallholder capacity, the cost of implementation, insufficient smallholder awareness, and difficulties in assessing areas of less than 500 hectares.
In the end, the resolution passed with a large majority 159/214 votes, which effectively signaled that members believe the laborious NPP should not yet be imposed on smallholders.
For years now, the RSPO has struggled to define standards for smallholders. While the RSPO insists on applying the same high standards to smallholders as to plantation companies, smallholders need both convincing and capacity building. Perhaps the RSPO can adopt a page from other agri-certification systems such as the cocoa certifications. These were developed with the smallholder in mind and they have adopted a phased certification approach setting annual compliance goals until the smallholder can become fully complaint.
Bottomline, out-of-the-box thinking is needed to address the challenge of smallholders and RSPO would be wise to explore case studies and experiences in other agricultural sectors.
RSPO still relevant?
I believe these lively debates, while time-consuming and at times very emotional, actually show the relevance of the RSPO. Detractors may argue that since there are still questions about how to proceed with the execution of its core goals, this demonstrates the weakness of RSPO. I would argue this is really a reflection of the complexity of the issues on the ground. What the RSPO does is offer a platform for more and more stakeholders including small farmers to come together to try to thresh out viable practical ways to move forward – this may require more fine-tuned, customised approaches such as the one GAR is trying out through joint conservation with the community and it may also require flexibility and the willingness to explore new models or to build on models that have been tested in other agricultural sectors. What is encouraging is that members are willing to think about different solutions while still espousing the main goals of the RSPO. That to me made the trip to Bangkok worthwhile.