Two years ago, the Sarawak-based Keresa Plantations in Malaysia started their mission to obtain certification in sustainable palm oil (RSPO). From workers to management, everyone at the Keresa Plantations has had to deal with a new or stricter guidelines and changes. This is their journey.
RSPO was established in 2004 as a non-profit organisation to set and enforce standards and best practices in the oil palm industry. To date, it comprises over 400 members who are producers, refiners, processors, retailers, traders and environmental non-governmental organisations.
At the core of it, RSPO is about helping companies cultivate good agriculture practices and having a quality management system in place. These practices are then balanced with an emphasis on health and safety, care for the environment and providing a fair workplace for both workers and the communities that are linked to the company.
Dealing with change
In the oil palm plantation world of Keresa, Kumar Kumaran is considered an old hand. Fresh out of school, Kumar entered the plantation business and worked under British managers more than two decades ago.
Like many planters and managers of his generation, Kumar’s, 47, initial reaction to Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was negative. With the help of Wild Asia, Keresa Plantations started their RSPO journey about two years ago.
"I realized that although we've been taking care of the workers in terms of their wages, RSPO's approach is more holistic and we had to look at safety, housing and health, etc.," says Kumar, Keresa's general manager for the past nine years.
To implement RSPO guidelines, the company has to start introduce the initiatives from top down. As acting senior assistant, Kamarulzaman Abd Wahab's (45) job is to ensure his staff follows the guidelines and parameters.
Like Kumar, he has been in the industry for more than 20 years. "These guidelines never existed when I joined the industry in 1984. Why give us such a burden now?" Over time, Kamarulzaman found that he's learning new things despite his years of experience in the industry.
"The RSPO has opened my eyes with regards to things like OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and ISO (International Organization for Standardization)," he adds. "I realized the guidelines and criteria are meant to benefit the company in the long run."
Solidaridad is a key funding and project partner for this unique project between this Malaysian plantation, the local community and Wild Asia. The current project provides technical support to the RSPO mill to develop an extension scheme to support the small farmers from up to six local communities in the Bintulu District, Sarawak, Malaysia. The ultimate beneficiaries of this approach are the smallholders and their families and the workers of that plantation company.
According to Dr Piers Gillespie, Manager of Solidaridad Palm Oil Programmes in Asia, the smallholder families (indigenous Iban people, living in traditional long houses) have small plantations (average size of farms of around 5-10 ha) and yields that do not exceed 12 tons of FFB per hectare per year.
“By the end of the project in 2012, these smallholders will be implementing more sustainable practices consistent with RSPO principles and supply their certified FFB to the RSPO-certified Keresa Mill,” he adds.
Solidaridad also has ensured the contribution of two supply chain partners to this project: Johnson and Johnson family of companies and Cono Kaasmakers. Both companies have contributed to this project in order to further initiatives of introducing better management practices on smallholder farms. A more detailed article on the cooperation between Solidaridad and Johnson and Johnson can be found here.
Safety at Keresa
One of the biggest changes that have to transpire at Keresa is the emphasis on safety and health. Foreman, Samsudin Jaafar, says one of the common injuries affecting harvesters are thorn pricks from the fronds. Most of the time, the workers will ignore the wounds which will eventually get infected and swell.
In August 2009, Wild Asia brought a consultant who advised workers to turn the fronds with the thorns face down to minimize the risk. It's a simple solution that doesn't cost money yet protect the workers. They are also instructed to wear long pants and rubber shoes to minimize injuries.
One and half year down the road, Keresa workers and staff are starting to reap the benefits from the RSPO implementations. The first phase of the terraced brick-houses has been completed in April 2009 and the rest are scheduled to complete soon. A new clinic has also been constructed.
Challenges amidst progress
The cost of running the plantation has also increased in the past two years. The PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) like gloves, helmets and vests need to be replaced due to wear and tear. There is also lots of road repairs and upkeep.
"The only way to maintain our cost of production is to increase our yields to cover these additional costs," says Kumar. When Keresa eventually receives their RSPO certification, they're next challenge is to maintain it.