The Palm Scribe

RSPO working on ways to draw palm oil smallholders into folds of sustainability

BALI — The Roundtable Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is continuously working to find ways to gain wider participation among smallholders in the palm oil sector, in sustainable palm oil cultivation practices, including by adjusting its sustainability criteria and providing assistance in various forms.

ILLUSTRATION. Plantation worker watches as a truck unloads freshly harvested oil palm fruit bunches at a collection point.
ILLUSTRATION. Plantation worker watches as a truck unloads freshly harvested oil palm fruit bunches at a collection point.

At its annual meeting in Bali this week, RSPO announced the recent endorsement of a new RSPO Smallholder Strategy, which is primarily aimed at empowering smallholders to achieve better and sustainable livelihoods.  It said that in recognition of the challenges faced by many smallholders, RSPO has established several structures including working groups, funds, and other approaches to specifically address smallholder issues.

The principle according to Tiur Rumondang, RSPO Country Director for Indonesia, in dealing with smallholders is to do so in groups. According to Rumondang in a written interview with The Palm Scribe, RSPO has developed a system of Group Certification which allows individual growers to certify their Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFB) against the RSPO P&C 2013 together under a single certificate. 

“Moreover, to support and encourage smallholders to achieve certification, the RSPO provides funding to independent smallholder groups through the RSPO Smallholders Support Fund (RSSF) and recently developed the RSPO Smallholder Strategy in an effort to provoke large-scale inclusion of both independent and scheme smallholders,” she said.

Rumondang said that smallholders usually work in community clusters and may generally lack access to expertise, capacity building, and infrastructure for sustainable practices. However, in the past few years RSPO has been working hard to address and overcome these barriers through increased awareness, training and education, voluntary dedication, funding provisions and systemic vigilance. 

“In addition to learning best management practices, smallholders who are certified to produce sustainable palm oil should gain improved access to both international and domestic markets,” she added.

Rumondang admitted that it has been proven challenging to get smallholders on board of certification programs in Indonesia, particularly for independent smallholder groups. But she said that while initially some of the smallholders were skeptical about the benefits of RSPO certification,  many could now see for themselves how RSPO members have boosted productivity through enhanced cultivation techniques.

She said that group certification is a commonly used tool in the certification of natural resource management, such as in organic production, good forest management, and good agricultural practices). Under such certification, individual growers can get certified under a single certificate, which is held by a central organization or individual, such as the Group Manager, group administrator or group entity.

A group certification meant that the members’ FFB are eligible to use the RSPO group certification mechanism. 

“There is no minimum area size, production, or number of smallholders for RSPO Group Certification. The most important consideration is that the scale of the group is manageable by the Group Manager and Internal Control System, as this will be very crucial to ensure that RSPO P&C could be implemented properly on the ground by the farmers, also taking into account the monitoring process and economic feasibility,” Rumondang said.

RSPO, she added, defines smallholders as farmers who grow oil palm, alongside with subsistence crops, where the family provides the majority of labor, the farm provides the principal source of income, and the planted oil palm area is less than 50 hectares. This said, the definition of smallholders in Indonesia will be based on Indonesian law, i.e. the planted area of oil palm is maximum at 25 hectares in size. 

The managers that are assigned in a farmer’s organization can be an individual or an identified legal entity.

However, finding the right candidates to fill the position is no easy task.

The requirements for a Group Manager includes the ability to demonstrate sufficient resources, capacity for managing Group Certification and performance assessment, as well as having competence and knowledge regarding RSPO and the certification standards. 

An independent certification body will assess the Group Manager and a sample of the group members against both the requirements of the Group Certification system and RSPO sustainable production requirements.

RSPO said that an entity such as a mill, or a social enterprise/NGO, which are interested in supporting the independent smallholder group can offer their support to be the appointed Group Manager, either through the identified entity or an individual acting on behalf of the entity. 

“Private company can establish partnership to support smallholder towards RSPO Group Certification. The company could take a role as Group Manager, or other support notably concerning capacity building,” Rumondang said. 

However, the legal entity of the smallholder group need to be established separately from the company as an individual entity. During the group certification audit, the Smallholder Group will be the unit of certification, in particular for independent smallholders. 

RSPO Chief Executive Officer, Datuk Darrel Webber said in an RSPO press release issued during the organization’s recent annual meeting that in reviewing its principle and criteria, the RSP must do so by taking into account the different perspectives and possibilities, the diverse markets and stakeholder groups, especially the less privileged ones. 

“This process must empower stakeholders to find local solutions to local issues, that work within an international framework,” Webber said.

Another form of assistance for smallholders is funding made available through the RSPO Smallholders Support Fund (RSSF). 

They include the Smallholder Certification Project, to help support the preparation of certification, including cost for training, building some Best Management Practice infrastructures, tools and technique development for smallholders, starting the elaboration of a documentation system for example establishment of Internal Control System, and strengthening the organization.

The Smallholder Certification Audit Cost is a one-off fund to fully cover audit costs for all potential certification process while the Smallholder Impact Project supports initiatives to develop tools that help smallholders comply with RSPO certification.These can include mapping of smallholders’ plantations, HCV assessments in high-risk areas, smallholder participation in jurisdictional areas etc. 

RSPO Certification System is a framework for formally recognizing and authenticating growers who are producing palm oil according to the RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&C). Smallholders who are certified to produce sustainable palm oil can gain improved access to both international and domestic markets requesting RSPO standards.

However, Rumondang added that RSPO can also provide support to smallholders purely in pursuit of livelihood improvements, which may not necessarily result in certification. 

Ideally, RSPO can help smallholders produce more oil using less land, raising levels of income among poor farmers and reducing risk of land conversion, which threatens forest and biodiversity. In turn, smallholder livelihoods will be improved through capacity building efforts, organization, and tools that support the adoption of better management practices, including improved environmental and social performance.

Once these practices are adopted, the smallholder can decide whether they would like to take the next step and apply to become RSPO certified. 

“One of our objectives of the implementation of the RSPO Smallholder Strategy is the business case for smallholder inclusion in the RSPO system. This will be made through increased support including market linkages, as well as financial, and non-financial incentives. In this case, partnership models between smallholder and mill/buyer(s) become one of the outputs which bring material benefits to farmers via financial and non-financial incentives and mill,’’ Rumondang said.

Among the initiatives to link smallholders with market players in the industry, is the RSPO Smallholder Engagement Platform (SHEP), an online interactive platform that is currently being developed.

Another approach is the Jurisdictional Approach – a stakeholder collaboration within landscape towards sustainable producers. This approach involves the certification of palm oil production at the provincial level that uses a particular model of rural development. 

This allows local stakeholders to work with regional governments to improve the welfare of small-scale farmers while curbing the use of environmentally destructive practices, such as slash-and-burn clearing, and the ironing out of supply chain inefficiencies.

Rumondang said that with the legal status of land tenure for smallholders being one of the main hurdles for farmers to get sustainability certification, RSPO and its members are proactively promoting capacity building of smallholders, prioritizing improving smallholder livelihoods, improving Best Management Practices (BMPs), legality with respect to land tenure, and access to finance. 

In the RSPO Smallholder Strategy, solutions are devised for all identified problems, including the high cost in meeting the standard for smallholders. This could be achieved by developing a standard tailored for smallholders, that better responds to smallholder profiles, facilitating entry into the RSPO system, whilst ensuring that core sustainability requirements, as well as the RSPO brand, are maintained. 

“We also simplify the approach to certification and consider three points such as; introduction of an entry level and/or stepwise approach, simplification of legal requirements, and links to jurisdictional approaches,” Rumondang said. She did not elaborate on the steps.

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