Blog post

New chapter in the story of palm oil unfolds in the shadow of Mt. Agung

Published on
December 12, 2017

'This scenario created ideal working conditions for realizing what Berkeley anthropologist Laura Nader once called "studying up", as many delegates now were unable to escape the island and had much more time at their disposal to talk to an anthropologist from the Forest and Nature Conservation Policy Group of Wageningen University.' - Martin Skrydstrup

The 15th Round Table of RSPO (Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil) in Bali, Indonesia, titled Inclusivity and Accountability ended on 30 November with the 14th Annual General Assembly. The members of RSPO casted their ballots and electronic votes on eight new resolutions critical for the sustainable governance of palm oil on a global scale.

Before the event, anticipation ran high. What would the major corporate actors and the Indonesian Government have to say about "inclusivity" and "accountability"? What parts or links of the global value chain should be subject to "inclusivity": Agrarian smallholders in Sumatra or consumers in Amsterdam? Refineries or shipping companies? And who should be accountable to whom across the global supply chain? These questions have recently been accentuated by the coming into being of competing and/or supplementary standards on palm oil conceived by the world’s largest palm oil producers; that is the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil standard (ISPO; introduced in 2011) and the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil standard (MSPO; introduced in 2013). This means that RSPO, founded in 2004, is no longer the only player in the field. The jury is still out whether ISPO and MSPO will play the role of supplementary national legal frameworks, or might harbor aspirations to compete with RSPO in the global market place.

However, the forecast of an imminent eruption of the Mt. Agung volcano, situated about 80 km from the meeting venue meant severe disruptions in air traffic and ultimately that Bali’s only international airport (Ngurah Rai) had to close. This cast long shadows over the event, as Datuk Darrel Webber, the CEO of RSPO based in the organization’s HQ in Kuala Lumpur, tried to turn it around by saying that the 15th meeting of the RSPO would break away from "business as usual" given that the event was now held for the 15th time. Unfortunately, Webber had to cancel the second day of the Round Table, which meant that the keynote by the King of Akyem Abuakwa in Ghana, HM Osagyefuo Panin, as well as the ministerial address by Enggartiasto Lukita (Indonesian Minister of Trade) were cancelled. Mr Lukita had been quoted for saying that EU’s campaign against palm oil based on environmental issues is "unfair and baseless" and King Abuakwa intended to question what sustainable palm oil might mean in Africa. Moreover, with the prospect of high-level executives being stranded on Bali for several months, HR officers in large corporations, as well as well-established NGOs, began to pull out their employees. Delegates began to leave the RT15 through alternative routes over land and water. This scenario created ideal working conditions for realizing what Berkeley anthropologist Laura Nader once called "studying up", as the remaining Delegates now were unable to escape the island and had much more time at their disposal to talk to an anthropologist from the Forest and Nature Conservation Policy Group of Wageningen University. An RSPO RT event has many layers of events and access. The general sessions are open to all Delegates; side events are per invitation only, as are the on-going work in the RSPO Standing Committees. Access to the General Assembly is restricted to members of RSPO, which again is divided into voting members and observers. As an accredited observer, I enjoyed the privilege of access to the entire gamut of events, except for the corporate board meetings.

In the spirit of HM Osagyefuo Panin, one general session was devoted to how Africa can and will deal with the expansion of its palm oil sector in sustainable ways and what lessons from Southeast Asia it might choose to learn from. We learned that the political economy of the sector is different in West Africa than in Southeast Asia, but also that Liberia and Gabon have taken very different positions on deforestation at the COP22 in Marrakech.Several general sessions were devoted to the smallholder question: how to reach them, engage them, train them in sustainability practices and include them in global value chains. A session was devoted to the current review of the RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&C) from 2013, which will be submitted for adoption at the next General Assembly in 2018. In the revised P&C presumably being tabled next year several thorny questions loom large: How might smallholders be included? How may RSPO augment accountability in the form of new regimes of metrication of their standard? Should new plantations in peatlands of any depth after November 16 2015 be a no go, with considerable effects for Indonesia, in so far most of Kalimantan is made up of peatlands? Last, but certainly not least, the question of whether traceability should be extended beyond the mill to include tracking of fresh fruit bounces (FFB) between farmer and the first processing unit? All these questions are currently under review for the next generation of P&C.

One of the answers to how RSPO might tackle inclusivity and accountability was introduced during the meeting: RSPO Credits. This is a proof that one metric ton of certified palm oil was produced by an RSPO-certified company or independent smallholder and has entered the global value chain. The rationale is that by buying RSPO Credits from certified smallholders, buyers encourage independent smallholders to become certified. The trade of RSPO credits is enabled by the IT trading platform known as RSPO PalmTrace, which permits retailers to buy credits directly from certified independent smallholders. However, it remains to be seen what kind of volumes this trade will take and which traceability modalities (Identity preserved; Segregated, Mass Balance and Book & Claim) might lend themselves best to RSPO credits.

Photo shows RT15 smallholders receiving their awards during the RSPO in Bali in November 2017.