The RSPO RT14 scheduled for 7 to 10 Nov 2016 is just around the corner. Arguably the RSPO RT is the most important palm oil conference annually because it defines priorities and sets the agenda for how the palm oil industry moves towards sustainability. This will be my sixth RSPO RT representing Golden Agri-Resources, and given a turbulent year for the sector’s globally accepted sustainability standard it is worth reviewing the RT programme.
The longest RSPO RT event ever
The programme is overloaded. Previous RT’s have spanned four days with plenary sessions and world cafes. This year, both formal and informal meetings are scheduled the weekend prior – working groups and other stakeholder events organised to maximise the attendees’ participation. Not only is the weekend of 5 to 6 November packed with overlapping meetings, the official four day programme is jam-packed. The side meetings during the RT14 week are scheduled back to back with some meeting running concurrently with the formal RT meeting programme. Participants will require stamina and good bladder control.
The most ambitious RSPO RT event ever
Not only has RT14 expanded, it is also trying to cover too many topics. The roundtable opens with a discussion on emerging labour issues (GAR is a leading panel member), the theme of this year’s event. But participants are also expected to attend to various World Cafés, Preparatory Clusters, and Plenary Sessions. The latter will address issues on traceability, jurisdictional certification, smallholders, greenhouse gas emissions, etc. That is a lot for smaller players to stay on top of and engaged with, even as a larger participant GAR will be stretched. Begging the question: Has RT14 forgone quality conversations in favour of quantity?
Has sustainability become too complex?
Perhaps the whole notion of “what is sustainability” has become so complex, so all encompassing, that we are no longer able to focus on solutions to some of the sectors key impacts – deforestation, peatland protection, workers and community rights, in the same way as previous years.
One cannot help but get the impression that RSPO RT14 is trying to do everything to please everybody. The risk being that in doing so it satisfies no one. A risk more troubling given a year of turbulence, with suspensions, withdrawals and criticism from all sides. In the face of growers concerns about cost of certification compliance, the challenge for CBs to audit and NGO impatience with the rate of change it is perhaps understandable that the RSPO might try to use this RT as a vehicle to demonstrate just how much it is doing/getting done.
Need for prioritisation and discipline
The industry needs a focused and disciplined RSPO – in order to keep the sector focused on the changes RSPO is helping to drive. There are existing initiatives that need to be fully implemented or addressed before new initiatives can be given the attention they deserve. For example addressing FPIC legacy issues, clarifying the role of RSPO NEXT. And there are broader questions to answer about how to encourage those outside the RSPO to engage in the transformation of the sector its standards seek to achieve. –
In the past the energies and attention of the RSPO RT have had the most value when directed at the big opportunity. That opportunity remains mainstreaming sustainability across the supply chain from off-taker procurement of CSPO to medium grower and smallholder adoption of RSPO certification. Other issues are important too, but there is a limit to how many can be successfully discussed and progressed at RT14.
Moving forward with hope
The RSPO and its members have come a long way since its inception – 2800 members, independently accredited CBs, 21% of the world’s palm oil certified and more. We now live in a world where many leading companies, across the palm oil value chain, have made sustainability commitments and are experimenting with new ideas and delivering comprehensive change on a number of fronts – from forest conservation, to community participation, smallholder yield improvements, and more.
To continue to be a force for positive change RSPO needs to walk the difficult path of pragmatist and provocateur: recognising who is making progress and the real time and resource investments required to make those changes, as well as pushing where needed to move laggards along at a similar pace. To help those of us leading to move the floor of the industry that has still to come to grips with sustainability.
An ever-changing set of expectations, especially on growers where the greatest burden, and responsibility, already lies will act as a barrier to bringing the wider industry into the RSPO fold. There is an argument for keeping things simple even where the standards deal with the complex, in fact the greatest service the RSPO can provide the industry is helping us all, whether we are growers, buyers or civil society members, to keep the big opportunity in sight.
I sincerely hope the RSPO can find the focus it needs to support a changing industry, building on best practice and what works whilst holding all in the palm oil value chain accountable for delivering sustainable change. To my fellow delegates, I wish them a successful RT14.
Richard Kan is Assistant Vice President within GAR’s Corporate Communications and Sustainability Relations Directorate. He plays a leading role in GAR’s participation within the RSPO representing the company in a number of working groups and supporting the Sustainability Directorate in meeting RSPO requirements. After RT 14 he will have attended six RT’s on behalf of the company.
Join us for our HCVRN and GAR workshop: Engaging Communities in HCV5 Assessments: Issues and Challenges and Solutions & Exploring Best Practice Experiences of FPIC & HCV5 Assessments in the Field on Wednesday, 9 November 2016.