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Palm oil smallholders face the challenges of sustainable production

by Laura Villadiego

Pak Dahlan, a small farmer from the Indonesian province of Riau, has spent five years preparing his three hectares of oil palms for certification as sustainable.

“It’s complicated, because it doesn’t only mean having to change agricultural techniques. It above all means having to change the farmers’ mindset,” explains the smallholder, who, in 2014, submitted an application to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) along with 200 other small farmers from his village, Dosan. “We never received a response and people lost all motivation, because it had cost us a lot (to prepare),” says Dahlan.

<p>The main benefit - of sustainable certification – for small producers is not the price associated with certification, as it fluctuates a great deal, but the improvements in production.</p>

The main benefit - of sustainable certification – for small producers is not the price associated with certification, as it fluctuates a great deal, but the improvements in production.

(Laura Villadiego)

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is the main certification standard for an industry that has been under global public scrutiny for decades due to its environmental and social impact. The RSPO currently certifies 17 per cent of all the palm oil produced around the world, but the majority – 85.5 per cent – is from large-scale plantations, despite between 30 and 40 per cent being produced by smallholders such as Dahlan.

“It is much more difficult for small farmers to obtain certification than for big companies. Companies can give orders and the workers have to obey. For us, the change has to come from ourselves. And no one helps us,” complains Dahlan. The RSPO defines small producers as those with less than 50 hectares of land planted with oil palms.

Palm oil was introduced to Dosan in 2003 through a government programme – to alleviate poverty – granting three-hectare plots to each villager to plant oil palms.

“Palm oil brought us more money but it also brought us a lot of problems,” says Dahlan, alluding to the fires that used to break out every year during the dry season.

Palm oil has been pointed to by environmental organisations, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, as one of the prime culprits of the fires causing devastation in Indonesian for years, fires often set off intentionally as a quick way of clearing the land for new plantations, but also accidental fires, caused by the draining – of peatlands – needed to grow palm. “Dry peatland is like gasoline,” says Woro Supartinah, coordinator of Jikalahari, a network of NGOs fighting to prevent fires in Riau.

 

Raising awareness and changing mindsets

It was one such fire, which caused devastation over 11 hectares in 2009, that brought about a change in mindset. “We came to realise the connection between the fires and palm and we decided to do something about it,” explains Dahlan. Then they learnt about the RSPO. “We were told we could get a better price for the oil if we managed to get the seal, and it would put an end to many of our problems,” continues the Indonesian smallholder.

The villagers set up a cooperative, Bungo Tanjung, and started to implement the changes needed to meet the eight sets of criteria required for producers to acquire certification, ranging from measures such as transparency to respect for local laws and good environmental practices. “The health and safety part was one of the most complex, because the material is expensive and consciousness has to be raised among the workers using it,” explains Pak Komi Sahar, head of the Bungo Tanjung cooperative.

No one financed the purchase of the equipment in Dosan and many of the farmers never bought it. “The burden shouldn’t fall on the smallholders, [...] but the cost of certification is relatively high,” says Mansuetus Darto, national coordinator of the SPKS, the Indonesian Union of Oil Palm Smallholders.

A study published in 2012 by WWF, one of the main promoters of the RSPO, states that, on average, certification costs smallholders between $1.19 and $34.66 per hectare (in terms of training and monitoring). Yet, according to the report, the main benefit derived from certification is not a price premium, which the farmers from Dosan are interested in, but greater productivity based on better agricultural practices. On average, small producers obtain yields of 50 per cent, in part due to the overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, whilst the big plantations manage to extract 80 to 90 per cent of the plant’s maximum potential.

Another study published by the Sensor Project, financed by the RSPO, in October 2016, points out that smallholders, especially independent ones, face numerous additional problems, such as the lack of organisation or skills required to adapt to the certification principles, especially when it comes to the management of High Conservation Values (HCV). “I’ve heard that we can earn more, but I’m not sure what the benefits of the seal are. We need more information,” says Zamzami, a 39-year-old farmer with three hectares of palm oil, like the rest of the villagers. “If someone would show us how, we would do it,” he adds.

 

“We risk them turning their backs on us”

During the RSPO annual meeting held at the beginning of November in the Thai capital, Bangkok, the word “smallholder” was one of the most oft repeated in the speeches and debates organised by the seal. “We have to acknowledge that the smallholders need more help, more resources and more time. Or we risk them turning their backs on the RSPO,” insisted Carl Bek-Nielsen, co-chair of the RSPO, during his speech opening the meeting.

In a bid to tackle these issues, in 2013 the certification system set up the RSPO Smallholders Support Fund - RSSF, offering funding for adaption to the principles or to pay for monitoring or other costs. Over 160,000 smallholders have been certified to date.

“The numbers show that it is possible. We are conscious that if we leave the smallholders behind, we are precluding half of the supply chain,” Julia Majail, the RSPO’s smallholder programme manager, tells Equal Times.

Majail adds that one of the organisation’s new strategies, the jurisdictional approach, whereby whole regions rather than individual producers will be certified, will benefit small producers. At the last meeting, the organisation also approved a temporary dispensation of small producers from the new planting procedures.

Many of these small farmers have, however, managed to adapt thanks to support provided by the big companies they supply. “The company’s help was fundamental, because it provided us with the training,” says Amin Rohmad, leader of the Sapta Tunggal Mandin cooperative, the largest certified smallholder group, which produces exclusively for the agribusiness giant Wilmar.

“Certification can be cumbersome for small producers,” says Johan Verburg, Pro-Poor Value Chain advisor at Oxfam. For Verburg, the RSPO should develop a more open strategy, where the focus is not necessarily to secure the seal but to implement better farming practices. “The main benefit [for small producers] is not the price [associated with certification], as it fluctuates a great deal, but the improvements in the production processes,” maintains the expert.

Dahlan, for his part, is conscious that he still has a long way to go, but has no intention of giving up: “As long as I know that we can secure a better living with RSPO, I will keep on trying.”

 

This article has been translated from Spanish.

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