Jakarta – For Anita Neville, the main challenge facing Indonesia’s fast growing palm oil sector, continuously under attack from many sides over alleged environmental impact, is essentially of a human nature: that of changing mindsets and deeply ingrained habits.
As Vice President of Corporate Communications and Sustainability Relations at Golden Agri-Resources Ltd, Neville develops and oversees the corporate as well as sustainability communications for the world’s second largest palm oil company. She brought with her years of experience in sustainability issues in government and in non-governmental organizations.
“The hardest challenge is how to change people’s mindsets and behavior.” she said. And changing these mindsets, often deep-rooted and moulded in many cases by habits that have been there for generations, is no easy feat. “It is about breaking bad habits and establishing new ones. It is not easy.” Changing mindsets, she said, implied a huge cultural change that would need continuous prodding and education. Neville said much effort, time and funds were needed to bring about an understanding that would lead to the change in mindsets, and turn many cultivators from pillaging or exploiting forests to safeguarding them, if not at the very least leaving them undisturbed. “If I can’t convince you that a forest is worth keeping as a forest, then no matter how many fences I put around that forest, you would figure out a way to get in there and plant whatever that is, that you want to plant,”
In the case of palm oil, the more difficult challenge is to build human capacity among farmers and communities to do things differently. “It is a big investment, it really is about industry transformation,” Neville said, adding that the process of ingraining a new set of habit not only required persuasion, education and training but also continuous attention, so that people do not fall back on their old routines.”We cannot be complacent when we are trying to change the habits of a lifetime, of generations, she said. But bringing about a change in mindset is not only for farmers and communities. It also needs to take place at all levels in a company as well. With over 170,000 people employed in offices and at various regions spread throughout Indonesia, getting everyone on the same wavelength has not been an easy feat, “We are still working on that process, ingraining a new set of habits” Neville said, adding that like in any other company, there were “leaders and laggers.”
Singapore-headquartered Golden Agri Resources, founded in 1996, is a seed-to-shelf agribusiness in the palm oil industry. It manages more than 502,200 hectares of palm oil plantations, including those worked on by smallholder farmers.The company’s supply chain includes some 14,400 independent smallholders supplying to its 44 owned mills.
GAR has several subsidiaries that include PT SMART Tbk, Victory Tropical Oil, and PT Dami Mas Sejahtera. Other constraints include the difficulty of communicating to a workforce in plantations that are often remote and where their jobs usually take them out in the field for most of the day; the level of education of workers and their level of understanding and engagement in the change process. “It is a fantastic challenge, how do I reach all those people, how do I convey information to them,” she said. And to Neville, this communication hurdles clearly take a high priority to solve. She said that if she could have one wish fulfilled, it would be that all 170,000 employees be joined in a working mobile phone-based communication network.
“We can only achieve the objectives of our GSEP (GAR Social and Environmental Policy) in the next five years, if we take everyone with us. This is all the more challenging when we have fractured, fragmented communications.”
GSEP, according to the company, is the roadmap it shares with its employees, smallholders, suppliers, and customers as they work together to realize GAR’s vision of a sustainable palm oil industry. It was developed in 2015 and is the company’s roadmap through to 2020.
GSEP, Neville said, is based on four pillars: environmental management, social community engagement, work place and labor rights and supply chain management. Neville, who studied journalism at university, defined the sustainability communication she was now engaged in as how to translate the rather technical and complex set of things that the company was doing to make its business more responsible and more sustainably managed, so that it could be understood by everyone.
“It is really about how we translate that for our own people, for external stakeholders, so that we can create compelling stories that are also authentic. Stories that are not over claiming but are honest and truthful as possible about what it is you are doing,” she explained. For her the hallmarks of good sustainability communications are authenticity, humility and transparency.