The pros and cons regarding the role of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) have been discussed in an on and off manner since the group’s inception. Similar debate arose ahead of its recent eighth meeting in Jakarta from Nov. 8 to 11 and the sixth Indonesian Palm Oil Conference, held in Bali, which concluded on Dec. 3.
Considering the diverse backgrounds and interests of RSPO members, it is little wonder that they found have it very difficult to find a middle ground that benefited all. But perhaps it is now time to remind everyone again that the world has been changing from the “muscle era” to the “mind era”, which requires the use of soft power, such as creative thought, as suggested by John Elkington.
Palm oil plantations have been tainted by a series of negative campaigns. There are blind spots as a result of the negative campaigns against Indonesian palm oil industry players, who then are unwilling to sit together to shape their common future under the RSPO.
I believe that the blind spots originated from a mixture of facts, myths and conflicting viewpoints surrounding palm oil cultivation.
First, there is a conviction among environmentalists that palm cultivation emits carbon and carbon emission is a new driver of environmental consciousness. However, some researches suggest that palm oil cultivation, particularly in the process of growing, is actually absorbing more carbon from older trees.
Thus, from some perspectives palm oil cultivation is deemed as a carbon sequester.
Another issue associated with palm oil cultivation that is vaguely recognized and sometimes lost in the fray is the socio-economic aspect.
It is a fact that palm oil contributes to food security as the most productive and highest yield of edible oil, and is a development driver for poverty alleviation through small-holder development.
Second, many misunderstandings have been attributed to legal uncertainty in Indonesia. Many accusations toward palm estates are sourced from different interpretations of conflicting laws and regulations concerning forestry, environment, agriculture, regional autonomy and land concessions.
Some parties, for example foreign NGOs, accuse growers of violating the environmental law, while the goodwill of the growers to comply with certain laws is not viewed impartially.
So how to straighten out the mess? I believe that firstly, the government should provide tacit support for sustainable palm oil development by eliminating all overlapping regulations and potential loopholes from different areas.
The overarching objectives should capture the spirit of sustainable development with a three-pronged approach, namely economic prosperity, environmental quality, and social justice.
Second, the spirit of partnership in building new understanding should be reached among the many actors in the palm oil industry. This could be achieved through a global campaign, public education and a global forum on palm oil.
Third, certification and standardization of palm oil is inevitable and indispensable to meeting the agreed standards. However, the criteria should be built on consensus among all stakeholders in a transparent, fair, accountable and equitable manner.
Fourth, RSPO is one of the means to up the ante of palm oil quality and performance, which should be used effectively by all stakeholders, including the government and growers, to further advance sustainability in the palm oil industry.
However, on the other hand, the government and growers are mulling an alternative certification regime under the Indonesia on Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO), which has been seen by some parties as contradicting the whole purpose of RSPO.
It is also noted that certifications do not prevent black campaigns. Thus, tangible incentives for certifications should be in place. Otherwise, disincentives may also be applied to non-sustainable products in terms of discount prices or trade barriers.
Promotion of sustainable palm oil should involve all value chains within the industry. Therefore, it is necessary to further differentiate the sustainability of palm oil by adopting several types of certifications in different schemes.
Some suggest that RSPO is an ideal venue to shape the sustainability of palm oil, however the forum faces growing challenges from both members and non-members for different reasons. The Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) is seen as an alternative certification standard introduced by the government along with concerned stakeholders.
Such alternative certification schemes are intended for palm oil growers, but can also be applied for other value chains on the basis of palm oil uses, processes or products. Despite its noble intention, the alternative certification is facing daunting challenges in terms of institutional credibility and product acceptability.
The process will draw certification and standardization of palm oil, which is inevitable and indispensable for the palm oil industry to meet the agreed standards.
By building the criteria on consensus among all stakeholders in a transparent, fair, accountable and equitable manner, we can expect the industry to reach positive new development in the near future.
At the very least, the current plan aims to: First, differentiate the sustainability of palm oil by adopting several types of certifications; second, promote alternative certification schemes, including specific certification on the basis of its uses, process or products; and third, develop the best certification mechanisms, including a clearing house mechanism to resolve conflicts and disputes.
These processes, if conducted consistently, will help us achieve what Elkington calls sustainability as a result of long-term maintenance of systems according to environmental, economic and social considerations.
Further, in shaping the future of sustainable palm oil, the RSPO should be used as a platform for development of sustainability certification, either by government-driven, market-driven or other multi-stakeholder-driven standard setting on sustainable palm oil.
Taking into account the sensitivity and complexity of sustainable standards and certifications, RSPO is considered ideal for playing a role as a clearing house to reconcile conflicting interests and views on sustainable palm oil. However, its roles should go beyond its members to also accommodate other parties, such as the government and consumer groups.The writer is head of CSR Agro Harapan Lestari. This opinion reflects his personal views.