A decade of Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – A personal journey

Marieke Leegwater is palm oil programme manager at Solidaridad. She visited nearly all RSPO meetings in the last ten years, starting with RT 2 in 2004. Marieke writes about her experiences with Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

The first Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) meeting I attended was the RT2 that was held in October 2004 in Jakarta. It was attended by about 200 people. At the time Malaysia was still the biggest producer of palm oil, and Indonesia in second place. The main item on the agenda at the time was the development of criteria for sustainable palm oil production.

The opening address was given by the Indonesian Minster of Agriculture Prof. Bungaran Saragih. In his speech he stressed the importance of sustainability, and in his view the main approach to increase sustainability in Indonesia, would be in reducing poverty. For the Indonesian government developing oil palm plantations were an important element of the strategy to combat poverty. With this in focus he immediately set the scene for the debates within the RSPO; to seek for ways to combine economic development while reducing negative environmental impact of these developments. Today Saragih is special advisor to the RSPO Executive Board.

At the time I worked for the Dutch Product Board for Margarine Fats and Oils, the industry association of the Dutch Oils and Fats Industry, but I attended the conference in my personal capacity. Within the industry the topic of sustainability was not on the agenda yet, and attending such a conference could be seen as an acknowledgement of the issues related to sustainability of palm oil production.

Early years of RSPO

Looking back, the developments in the years after that conference went amazingly quick. The continued pressure from several non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) and the attention of Unilever for the issue created a broader awareness on the issues at stake. In response the European palm oil industry developed the shared notion that it should not be associated with negative practices as shown to be linked with palm oil production. The annual RSPO conference became an event not to be missed.

In 2005 the first version of Principles and Criteria of Sustainable palm oil were adopted. They were developed by a specially set up, Criteria Development Group, composed of 8 plantation companies, 8 NGO’s (4 social and 4 environmental) and 8 supply chain representatives, including banks and retailers. In the same year the Dutch Product Board for Margarine Fats and Oils also became a member and the industry, with forces joined on the Board, started its efforts to bring the RSPO certified palm oil to the market in Europe.

First shipment

In 2008, only four years after the conference in 2004; the first shipment of sustainable palm oil arrived at the Rotterdam port. It was shipped by United Plantations and parcels were bought by Sainsbury’s, Unilever and Aarhus Karlshams.

An important drawback at the time was that the demand for certified sustainable palm oil kept lagging behind the production, what prompted the Product Board MVO to set up the Dutch Task Force Sustainable Palm Oil with its commitment that in The Netherlands in 2015 only sustainable palm oil would be used. As we speak, comparable initiatives are developed in Belgium, the UK, Germany and France.

All the while the RSPO kept growing, the membership has grown up to 751 members and the traded volume of certified sustainable palm oil has increased from 160.000 ton in 2008 to nearly 5 million ton in 2012. This amounted to about 10 % of the globally traded volume. The complete statistics can be found in this presentation.

The role of Solidaridad

About 30 % of all palm oil globally is produced by small farmers! However, since the main focus of some of the big players was getting RSPO certified palm oil on the market, there is a continuous risk that smallholders are excluded by the introduction of a certification system. After all, big players are easier to certify than groups of small independent farmers.

Despite various efforts such as the creation of the Task Force Smallholders, the issue of smallholders remained an Achilles heel within RSPO. This was explicitly mentioned during the conferences of 2009, 2010 and 2011. Solidaridad, the organisation I am now part of joined the RSPO in 2006 and soon realised that they could play a role in the industry.

In 2009 Solidaridad started the Palm Oil Producer Support Initiative (POPSI), a programme co-financed by the Dutch government to stimulate better management practices with small oil palm farmers and getting access to RSPO certification. This programme was co-financed and supported by RSPO. In 2011 Solidaridad ensured continuity of this programme, with the Farmer Support Programme, a €37 million grant by the Dutch government for stimulating better practices with smallholder farmers producing oil palm, cotton, soy and sugarcane.

Smallholder projects

To date one smallholder project in Papua New Guinea is completed, a further eight projects are ongoing and six more are planned to be executed by the end 2012. The ongoing projects are located in Indonesia (2), Malaysia, Ghana (2), Brazil, Colombia and Honduras. The six new ones are located in Indonesia (2), Malaysia (2), Honduras and Columbia. All projects are focused on increasing the livelihoods of producers by implementing better management practices, increasing yields and are done in cooperation with industry partners who are RSPO members.

As many projects are still starting up, it is difficult to say what results are achieved by the efforts of Solidaridad, but we can definitely say our knowledge on smallholder farmer certifications is increasing and awareness on consumer goods manufacturers is rising. At least within the consortia build by Solidaridad it is secured that smallholder farmers are not pushed out of the market! Please read the following article on our work with Wild Asia Keresa plantations.

The road ahead

A lot still needs to be done… As indicated earlier about one third of palm oil is produced by smallholders and only now are the first announcements of certifications of independent smallholders being made. The main challenges for the year 2013 and beyond will be disseminating the knowledge on smallholder certifications and to make sure lessons learned can be used by others and incorporated in RSPO systems. Solidaridad has generated a lot of knowledge to date in this process. Our challenge is now to share all lessons learned within the relevant RSPO working groups and beyond.

This upcoming tenth annual meeting is important because this is a place to share such knowledge and ensure solutions for the inclusion of smallholders (both associated and independent) are well integrated in the RSPO systems.

Solidaridad will be present at RT10 with this purpose in mind. The organisation will present its lessons learned so far, but also make an effort to ensure these lessons are incorporated in documents regarding smallholder certification and the revised Principles and Crit
eria for Sustainable Palm Oil Production. Solidaridad among others pleas for recognition of the fact that plantations; should also take responsibility for independent smallholders who are supplying their mills.

REDD+ programmes

An interesting angle would be to see if and in what way a link can be made with payments for ecosystem services for example via the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD or REDD +) systems. Solidaridad is generating knowledge on this by starting-up three pilot projects with palm oil producers.

Meet us at the RT 10

It is expected that the RT 10 conference will be attended by about 1000 people, a huge number compared to the RT 2 gathering. This shows the incredible relevance of the work RSPO and its members are doing together. On Wednesday 31 October Solidaridad will host a cocktail at its booth to promote its work. All interested parties who wish to contribute to Solidaridad’s mission are invited to attend or get in touch!


Read more on our dedicated RSPO 2012 RT 10 section!