January 13, 2016

Palm Oil – the long road of the RSPO standard toward impact

Denis Ruysschaert, SWISSAID Genève Helga Rainer, Arcus Foundation

Tropical forests are declining at about 1% a year, mainly due to industrial agricultural production. Sustainability standards have fallen short and need to engage local actors much more effectively to slow this deforestation.

Editor’s Note: This article is based on a chapter of the new book State of the Apes: Industrial Agriculture and Ape Conservation, published by the Arcus Foundation.

Firms – especially the ones exposed to consumer preference, such as retailers, processors, and manufacturers of consumer goods – are increasingly responding to this concern. With apparent state failure to implement its law in the forest margin, firms and non-governmental organizations have established global sustainability standards for agricultural commodities to transform global markets. This includes the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the Roundtable on Responsible Soy, the Better Sugar Cane Initiative, the Better Cotton Initiative, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (for agro-fuels), and the Sustainable Natural Rubber Initiative.

RSPO as a continuing learning process

Established in 2004, the RSPO is one of the most important initiatives to ingrain standards for biodiversity and social equity in to production. Products that are under the “Certified Palm Oil” (CSPO) label are made with palm oil produced under these standards. The potential for CSPO products to catalyze a shift toward sustainability in the food industry is significant, as palm oil accounts for 40% of the global supply of vegetable oil (70 billion tons per year). Oil palm is grown in 27 tropical tropical countries, though Indonesia and Malaysia alone account for 85% of the global production. Its production continues to rise at rates of more than 6% per year.

Indonesia and Malaysia account for 85% of the global production of palm oil. Photo provide by Denis Ruysschaert.

To gain legitimacy as a global standard, the RSPO established three core operating principles in its early years: inclusiveness, transparency, and broad stakeholder participation. As its membership grew, the RSPO tacked on the ambitious vision of transforming the market to make sustainability the norm. Its inability to achieve this central goal can be attributed to three main factors, all of which stem from the way the RSPO was initially set up.

  1. With 20% of the global market, the production of CSPO remains insufficient. Only large producers (those with more than 10.000 hectares of land) get certified to sell under the CSPO label to Western markets. For all other growers, the economic incentives of certification – the premium accorded to CSPO – is too low to compensate for the the costs of certification. As a result, smaller producers do not get certified.
  1. Ambiguity in the guidance document can make the sustainability measures of CSPO production dubious. For example, the manual can be interpreted to allow deforestation and the development of plantations on peat land, an ecosystem type that is of vital importance to biodiversity and rural communities.
  1. Finally, the standards assigned to CSPO fail to provide effective guidance on how to factor local socio-ecological contexts into oil palm production plans.

By 2014, the RSPO changed its focus from the “process” of embedding sustainability in to the supply chain to the “impact” of their actions to address these challenges.

RSPO is implementing a new outreach strategy to raise global demand by securing new markets. This effort is first being exerted in Europe, where a new RSPO+ concept that considers local, social, and environmental factors is strengthening the credibility of the original standards. The next stage of the strategy is being rolled out now to foster transparency and traceability in supply chains. These improvements are meant to increase demand for CSPO products and strive to provide a higher premium for producers. It is hoped that these combined factors will persuade more growers to pursue certification.

What’s next for sustainable palm oil to become a global norm?

However, if social and environmental goals are to be met, the RSPO – along with the rest of the oil palm sector – will need to shift into a higher gear at the local level. Four relatively workable steps are required. The RSPO must:

  1. Encourage producers to develop production modes on land that is already degraded. In Indonesia, such land accounts for more than 7.3 million hectares.
  2. Assist smallholders by providing seedlings, technology, and market access. Smallholders currently produce half the yields (about 2 tons/ha) of agribusiness firms.
  3. Address the factors that inform local decision-making, such as land tenure, palm oil prices, biofuel subsidies, seedlings, mills, and market access.
  4. Redouble RSPO efforts to engage with local communities to not only bolster poverty eradication programs, but also to promote the conservation of biodiversity. It is the exclusion of communities from their own land that drives them to destroy remaining forests in pursuit of economic survival.
RSPO meeting in June 2014

The RSPO meeting in London in June 2014 discussed strategies to increase the legitimacy of the RSPO standard and demand for CSPO products. Photo provided by Denis Ruysschaert.

The RSPO has made promising advances. However, as a global standard, it may not be equipped to respond to differing socioecological contexts and, as a result, may not transform the market and tackle deforestation. At present, RSPO’s chief accomplishment has been to reign in the biggest oil palm producers to implement much more stringent environmental and social safeguards.

Achieving RSPO goals will require true sector reform. This new system needs to factor in social and environmental costs of production along the supply chain, as well as embed the use of socioecological land use planning. By enabling local producers to certify according to RSPO standards and raising the consumer demand for CSPO products, RSPO could motivate a widespread adoption of sustainable land use practices.

Read More

The new book series, State of the Apes, looks at threats and dangers facing great apes and gibbons in their natural habitat.

Denis Ruysschaert is the Vice President of SWISSAID Genève and a researcher at the University Toulouse Jean Jaurès. His main field of interest is how international policies impact local people in the field of agriculture, biodiversity, and climate. Denis provided his expertise in sociology and agronomy to write on ape conservation and sustainable farming for the State of the Apes report.

Helga Rainer is the Conservation Program Director for the Arcus Foundation, where she develops the conservation portfolio strategy and leads its implementation. She has over 15 years of experience in natural resource management, research, and project development in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Helga is also the lead editor for the State of the Apes report.

Feature photo by Terry Sunderland/CIFOR on Flickr.

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