October 30, 2012

Beyond the Farm: What's Next for Certification?

As the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil convenes its tenth meeting this week in Singapore, this is a key time to consider questions about sustainability certifications and standards. Andre Brosser, founder of Beagle Sustainable Solutions, provides some thoughts on the future directions of RSPO and eco-certification in general.

Once upon a time, a leading palm oil company was awarded a 52,000 hectare concession in a tropical African country. It wanted to achieve certification under the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). As required by the standard, the company asked a renowned expert to carry out an assessment to ensure that palm oil production would not intrude into areas of high biological value. And what happened? 18,000 hectares turned out to be protected under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands already while a further 13,000 hectares appeared to be important high conservation value (HCV) area.

The findings caused much embarrassment. The company went to great lengths to get its first 8,000 hectares approved by the RSPO – including aerial surveys, Environmental and Social Impact Assessments, HCV assessment, as well as RSPO verification. Olam, the company we are talking about, set a quality benchmark for any future work related to RSPO certification in Gabon, the country that gave out the initial concession. Conservation organizations were pleased. But Olam responded that it did not know whether it would be able to replicate such intensive methodology for future sites. “We have to work out the commercial viabilities of these studies,” a spokesman said.

The Gabon case nicely illustrates the tragedy-of-the-commons considerations that are entering sustainable supply chain discussions. The sustainability standards developed by multistakeholder initiatives, such as RSPO, are applicable on the lands of the certificate holders only. But ultimately, the impact of the sustainable land use practiced in these standards also depends on what is happening on the surrounding lands. The users of these lands – whether they are oil palm producers, timber companies, smallholder farmers, national park authorities, illegal settlers, or others – should also be part of the solution. You can not become sustainable in perfect isolation. There are simply too many competing claims.

The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledges that innovative approaches are needed to reconcile these competing claims. The sustainable supply chain programmes that are currently gaining momentum might be drivers of change. The study “From sustainable supply chains to sustainable landscapes” takes an inventory of how supply chain programmes incorporate interests and management practices at a broader scale. The study concludes that many commodity sustainability standards include criteria that directly impact land expansion and land use zoning relevant at a landscape scale.

Companies are often motivated to engage in such supply chain programmes because of external pressure against involvement in deforestation, land rights abuses, and weak governance, including corruption and conflicts with local communities. It is increasingly in the interest of the companies themselves to resolve disputes about land rights, conversions, and other sensitive issues with local communities and NGOs in the areas where they operate. And though the standards may not include criteria to solve these landscape issues directly, they do provide a platform to work on them.

New alliances between regional governments and supply chain companies should be established. The lack of such collaboration and the resulting gap in regulation was a major incentive to start multistakeholder initiatives such as RSPO in 2002. Now ten years later in Singapore it is seems as if the impact of such standards is reaching its limits. It is about time to start looking beyond the farm. So why not celebrate the 10th RSPO anniversary this week in Singapore by starting the design of the landscape inclusive standard?

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