Meeting in the Middle: Looking at the Results of the RSPO Principles & Criteria Review



Posted on 18 April 2013  | 
By Adam Harrison, Palm Oil Lead, WWF-International

The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) Principles & Criteria Taskforce recently finalized the review of the RSPO Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Palm Oil Production (P&Cs). The revised P&Cs were presented to and endorsed by the RSPO Executive Board in February, and will be voted on by the RSPO Ordinary Membership at an extraordinary General Assembly on April 25, 2013 in Kuala Lumpur.

(Check out here WWF's Statement and FAQ on the revised P&C)

Tough but balanced—this could sum up the process of bringing stakeholders from different backgrounds (but with a shared agenda) around the table to strengthen the RSPO Principles & Criteria. The result of more than a year of meetings, consultations and debates now lies in a 60-page document, agreed by consensus amongst all the participants in the RSPO Principles & Criteria Review Taskforce, which spells out what criteria RSPO certified members are required to comply with to demonstrate that they are operating more sustainably.

As the official representative for WWF on the Taskforce and as one of four nominated environmental NGO participants, my job was to push for the strongest possible environmental safeguards taking into account that several new issues have emerged over the 6 years since the original P&Cs were adopted.

For example, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were only just emerging as an issue in 2005 and the science of how to address them was lacking. But now this is one of the most pressing challenges facing our planet today, and some of the palm oil industry has a better understanding of its crucial role in helping to address it. That’s why in this review process, WWF pushed for much stronger requirements for GHG emission reductions in palm oil production—both for current and planned plantations; an outright ban on further planting oil palm on peat soils and stronger safeguards on how to manage existing plantations on peat, among many other things.

But the RSPO is a multi-stakeholder process and we are all, as members, committed to finding a consensus between our different viewpoints. So WWF did not achieve all its goals but there was some progress on a new criterion requiring all new developments to minimise their GHG emissions, and peat has been identified as a particular ‘fragile soil’ which must be avoided for new plantings.

Although significant clarifications and improvements to the P&Cs were achieved, we need to accept that the final outcome was a compromise. The fact is, the RSPO aims to transform the industry as a whole. The P&Cs therefore need to keep as many members on board as possible and while it should challenge them to improve their practices it will not transform the market if it becomes a niche standard that only a few companies can achieve.

Over my career I have negotiated with hill farmers in Nepal and Eurocrats in Brussels; with cattle farmers in Scotland, basket weavers in Namibia and now oil palm producers around the world. In each case I have been trying to find a sustainable solution to whatever problem has been facing those parties

Many times it felt like trying to push a boulder up the hill—every step has been painful and slow and there seems to have been as much falling back as there has been progress. Sometimes they haven’t even believed that there is an issue to address. But in other cases, reaching an agreement has been easy.

I’ve been involved in the RSPO since 2006. One of the things that has struck me is that even through the toughest arguments and stormiest meetings, at the end of the day almost all the members have stayed in the room and eventually found a compromise that they can live with. That we managed to do this again with the review of the P&Cs is testament to the trust and respect that the RSPO has built up over the years

The outcome isn’t perfect and it’s some way from the ideal that we wanted—but the new version of the P&Cs is better than the previous one. It better describes how a responsible grower should be producing palm oil and it gives them the tools to demonstrate that they are doing it.

But its weaknesses mean that responsible growers will have to act more transparently and go further than the P&Cs alone require. It also means that the rest of the palm oil industry—the investors, traders, buyers and users of palm oil—will have to reward those that do act responsibly and avoid doing business with those that don’t.

What are the outcomes of the review from WWF’s perspective?

WWF asked for mandatory public reporting of GHG emissions from existing plantations and new developments. The Taskforce did reach consensus on the need for growers to use the tool that the RSPO has been developing to estimate and report these emissions. This tool, called Palm GHG, is a life-cycle analysis of the major sources of emissions from the plantation (including land use change and land use, fertiliser and energy use) and mills (waste ponds). The use of this tool (or an RSPO-approved alternative that uses the same defaults and calculations) means that all RSPO growers will be reporting to the same standard and using the same default figures, bringing greater transparency and comparability to certified growers.

However, the Taskforce compromised on a requirement stipulating that the growers only need to report to the RSPO until the end of 2016, after which public reporting will be mandatory. Although disappointing, at least the principle of measuring and reporting emissions is established—and it will now be for the market to encourage responsible growers to publish these figures.

WWF also pushed for a complete ban on any palm oil planting on peat soils. This was hotly contested by some of the growers in the room who were unwilling to accept the arguments that planting on peat neither makes sense in terms of oil palm agronomy and yields or in terms of potential climate impacts. However there was some movement and compromise in a number of areas that make it clearer that such planting is not acceptable.

Peat soils are now included in the wording of the criterion which states that: “Extensive planting on … peat, is avoided”. At the same time, once peat soils are identified then the limited plantings allowed can only be done “without incurring adverse impacts”. So again it is for all of the palm oil supply chain to now make it clear that new plantings on peat are unacceptable and that the actions of growers will be scrutinised. They can do that by requiring no peat conversion in their sourcing policies, by communicating this to their suppliers and by using the RSPO reports and websites to better understand the commitments and actions of growers.

WWF also asked for a new criterion to ensure that Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFB) are sourced with due diligence and that millers should ensure that FFB is not being sourced from illegally occupied areas such as National Parks. The Taskforce agreed in principle that this is an issue that the RSPO needs to resolve but felt that suitable tools were not yet available to require full due diligence at this stage.

While this is disappointing, the Taskforce did agree to add a new indicator requiring mills to record the origin of FFB bought at the mill gate and endeavour to trace it back to its actual origin. The Taskforce also asked the RSPO and its Executive Board to ensure that this issue is fully resolved in the future. WWF sees this as a first important step and an acknowledgment that this issue is one of the biggest risks facing the palm oil industry.

In the end, some of the most significant additions to the P&Cs that WWF welcomes include:
  • a new criterion that requires growers to minimize GHG emissions from new plantings
  • a new criterion on ethical business practices which requires companies to have and implement policies that counter corruption
  • a new criterion requiring that a policy on human rights is in place and communicated to the whole company
  • a new criterion banning the use of forced labour
There have also been numerous changes to existing criteria, indicators and guidance to update the effectiveness of the P&Cs and their relevance to the sustainability challenges facing oil palm cultivation.

What needs to happen next?

While they are not perfect, the new P&Cs do set out a comprehensive framework within which there is space for growers to demonstrate that they are acting responsibly to address the major sustainability impacts of palm oil production.

The vision of the RSPO is to transform the whole palm oil industry to one that is sustainable. The current P&Cs are a pragmatic step forward and have broad support by all member categories. However the P&Cs will only be able to transform the industry if they are implemented robustly. For this to happen the RSPO needs to police them and the wider membership also need to play their part.

Not only do the growers need to adhere to the P&Cs and set themselves challenging performance targets within them, but palm oil buyers need to demand CSPO from growers that have set themselves such challenging standards.

But before that can happen, the Ordinary Members of the RSPO need to endorse the new P&Cs on 25th April. If you are a member of the RSPO with the right to vote please make sure that you are registered to do so and that you are able to attend or nominate a proxy to vote on your behalf.

WWF will vote to endorse the revised P&Cs and recommends that others do as well. The RSPO is on a journey to transform the global oil palm industry and this revision of the standard is one step on that journey.
Adam Harrison in Sabah
© Adam Harrison Enlarge
Adam Harrison in Sabah
© Adam Harrison Enlarge

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