The Palm Scribe

Geetha Govindan: Fighting Climate Change with Sustainability Initiatives 

With over three decades of experience in the plantation business, 21 years of which in Indonesia, Geetha Govindan K. Gopalakrishnan, Chief Operating Officer for palm oil operation at PT Austindo Nusantara Jaya, believes that only with sustainable initiatives can plantations of tropical crops, including oil palm, overcome the increasingly rigorous standards required by the market and pare down the impact of climate change.

“The entire business modeling approach has changed, and attitudes must change with due consideration for environmental investment and initiatives. If there are businesses that don’t regard environmental sustenance or environmental sustainability, they will not sustain,” Geetha told The Palm Scribe in a recent interview.

Geetha Govindan K. Gopalakrishnan, Chief Operating Officer for Oil Palm Operation at PT Austindo Nusantara Jaya

Geetha, who has been ANJ for the past eight years and is also Chief Operating Officer of ANJ’s subsidiaries engaging in the palm oil sector, said that when one talked about business nowadays, none would be able to survive without regard to environmental considerations and responsible initiatives.

Beside citing the absolute need for businesses to ensure that their operations are sustainable in every aspect, Geetha also singled out climate change as one of the other main challenges that the world, the plantation sector included, had to address.

“We are in this tropical agricultural business and climate change would have a profound effect on ANJ’s productivity and the production of tropical agricultural crops like palm oil,” said the holder of a diploma in Human Resources management from the University of Malaysia and an Executive Master of Business Administration from Euregio Management School in the Netherland.

Among the predicaments brought by climate change, he said, were rise in global temperatures, extreme dry conditions, drying peatland, heavy precipitations, rising sea level and many more.

“When global temperatures are rising, you will see that the productivity of our palm, our production in tropical agriculture, the yields, would be severely adversely affected and if this is not mitigated with sufficient initiatives this will have a dramatic effect on the volume of production we are going to produce for ANJ ultimately affecting our revenue,” he said

It was imperative for businesses to ensure the sustainability of their operation to limit the impacts of climate change, he said, but he also added that sustainability policies should be a “living documents” that needed to be constantly adjusted to the challenges.

“Our sustainability policies are constantly evolving, we are changing from time to time. These measures are probably adequate at this point of time but these may not be the policies going forward.”

“These are the policies introduced to face some of the challenges which are prevailing now but as the years go by, I think the challenges would become more stringent and we would have to make sure that our agriculture practices are lot more greener to ensure that we sustain through this difficult period of climate change.” Geetha said.

The company’s sustainability policy, first issued in 2017, and periodically renewed is aligned with the Principles and Criteria of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) as well as with international best practices and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Geetha pointed out that ANJ had embarked on a lot of sustainability initiatives, pointing to reduction of the use of fossil fuels in transportation, the use of palm oil waste to burn in the boilers, the reduction of chemical fertilizers, the use of fertigation and the comprehensive involvement of local communities in conservation, fire prevention and mitigation and their empowerment.

To reduce the use of chemical fertilizer and optimize the use of fertilizers, the company is taking a multi-pronged approach. In 2015, ANJ has embarked on a composting program in two of its concessions, processing waste such as empty fruit bunches into compost to replace some of the chemical fertilizers.  

The second approach was to avoid the multiple application of various inorganic fertilizers by substituting it with just one compound fertilizer. The company was also embarking on fertigation trials at two sites. Fertigation is the injection of fertilizers, used for soil amendments, water amendments and other water-soluble products into an irrigation system using a network of small tubes to reach individual palm trees.

“If you look at our statistics on the amount of fertilizers that we used to apply previously, we have dramatically reduced the volume that we use per hectare over the year,’ Geetha said, adding that the company was reducing the volume of its inorganic fertilizers by between 10 and 20 percent.  

The schemes, he added not only reduced the company’s carbon footprint, allowed more correct dosage and provision of fertilizers, but also significantly reduced the financial costs of fertilizer applications over the year. He added that the company had engaged the services of an international consultancy to determine the precise minerals and nutrients the crops needed.

At the same time the drip irrigation would help to maintain the soil damp enough to make them less flammable in the dry seasons.

The fertigation trial was currently conducted on two sites totaling about 224 hectares, he said, with the results expected later this year. Expansion of this program is expected in the next year. “Eventually, you will see a plantation using a computer to dose the palm and you don’t have people manually applying fertilizers,” he said.

As part of its sustainability practice, the company three years ago embarked on ensuring traceability, mapping all its oil palm fruits suppliers, whether part of the company’s plasma scheme or third party. It has almost completed the mapping of its suppliers that are part o the plasma scheme.

“We have mapped out the entire sources of our external Fresh Fruit Bunch quite diligently and we’ve got it in our system, so we can trace where the fruits are coming from,” he said, adding that the company only dealt with cooperatives and not individual third party suppliers. The company, he said, usually assisted third party suppliers in organizing themselves into cooperatives.

Also as part of the sustainability goals was the company’s policy of responsible development of new areas, by engaging with all stakeholders, including local communities, through a consultative process.

“We don’t want to see them (the local communities) as just bystanders, looking at a big or multinational company coming in into their land, developing their land without any participatory presence from them,” he said, citing as example the company’s operations in Papua where there were a lot or communities that held or claimed the rights to the land.

He said that the company applied the Free and Prior Informed Consent principle contained in the RSPO guidelines throughout its operations, ensuring its application before any development could take place in the new area.

“We respect those rights. We make sure that they are part of the development process. We take cognizance of the fact that they have been there for many years and we would take them into our stakeholder network, to make sure that they are cognizant of the development program the company is embarking on,” Geetha stressed.

He added that there was not always agreement from all sides but the company was doing its best to approach and communicate with all stakeholder and should some parties remain unsatisfied, they could take recourse to the company’s grievance mechanism or also to report it to the RSPO, which the company joined in 2007. He pointed to transparency, documentation and the participation of the local government as key to such approach.

The engagement with the local communities also involve providing them with the knowledge, the necessary training and assistance for them to organize themselves to help address or mitigate the fires that usually breaks out during extreme dry seasons. The local communities are also engaged in the company’s conservation efforts.

“I think conservation is an integral part of ANJ’s group activities and they are of prime importance in our corporate structure,” Greetha said. He specifically pointed out that in the Ketapang 

district of West Kalimantan, the company has a land area of 2,330 hectares that lays outside of its Right to Cultivate (HGU) area where since four or five years, the company has introduced programs and conservation techniques to ensure a habitat is maintained, preserved and reserved for orangutans. He said there were about 200 orangutans in that habitat.

The company also have mapped it high conservation value areas and are monitoring local biodiversity involving not only all company employees but also those of its contractors, established strict SOP on hunting to make sure the species are protected and preserved, and educate the local communities, especially children, on conservation. 

He said that for ANJ, the importance given to conservation was of a very paramount deal towards the company’s financial expenditure across the group.

In closing Geetha said he believed the company was now clearly visible as a player in the industry and added that “people look at us as a responsible player now, which is a lot different from what was seen as a general oil palm producer.”

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