RSPO Preview: Will Smallholders Get a Standard?
The next few weeks are going to be busy for palm stakeholders in the region. A high-profile event for the industry based in Europe will be the 17th Annual Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), taking place in Bangkok. The meeting is not garnering the same attention it did last year, when there was a concerted push for ‘zero deforestation’ policies to be incorporated into the standard.
There are, however, two key resolutions that will be brought up at the General Assembly (GA).
The first is changing the voting scheme within the RSPO in a way that should in theory give greater balance to the organisation’s resolutions and voting.
One of RSPO’s problems throughout its history is that growers have very much been outnumbered by purchasers and by NGOs. These stakeholder groups are not the ones who have to implement standards in the field, and have often been quite antipathetic towards grower concerns.
Although it is often the case that growers are lumped in with processors and traders, anyone who has worked in agriculture before understands fully that the grower-processor relationship is often fractious, mostly because of price.
The study that RSPO has based its revised voting structure on recommends weighting the grower vote so that it is double that of other groups. This is, in theory, supposed to use the voting system to align the goals of different groups better and particularly reduce the tension between growers and NGOs.
In 2010 a number of grower companies abandoned the organisation completely because they didn’t feel they were represented. This resolution may alleviate that. The question is whether NGOs and other groups are prepared to hand over greater power to the growers.
The second – and arguably more important – is the adoption of the RSPO smallholder standard. The smallholder standard was planned to be ready for last year’s GA. This didn’t happen.
The relationship between smallholders and RSPO has always been fractious. For many years, RSPO simply didn’t put the required resources into establishing a smallholder standard. As a result, smallholders were effectively excluded. A number of approaches were taken, such as providing grant applications for smallholder groups. The uptake has been limited at best.
The final establishment of a smallholder standard appears to partly be in response to the growing number of smallholders certified under national schemes MSPO and ISPO.
The standard can be considered ‘RSPO-lite’ in some ways, with a reduced emphasis on record keeping and a greater emphasis on training. This reflects the situation of smallholders on the ground.
But there is one glaring problem, and that is the High Conservation Value and High Carbon Stock (HCV/HCS) assessments. Last year the smallholder standard committee promised that a simplified version of the HCV/HCS assessment procedure would be available for smallholders. It is not ready for this RT, and it is stated that it will be published no later than November next year.
The HCV/HCS assessment is very much the linchpin of the standard. It will be the most difficult thing to comply with and probably the most expensive part of certification for smallholders – and it is absent. More to the point, it doesn’t appear as though the HCV/HCS simplification will be voted on by smallholder members themselves.
Does this fly in the face of the goal of including smallholders in the first place?
Is the deforestation campaign moving back to the Amazon?
Anyone reading environmental press over the past month will have noticed that attention appears to have shifted back to the Amazon, particularly after the Latin-American region’s disastrous fire event, which eclipsed all others on the planet.
Researchers have noted that deforestation in the Amazon in 2019 was up 85 per cent on 2018.
There also appears to be a renewed emphasis on soybean and beef among retail groups, who have been caught slightly on the hop by the renewed attention on the Amazon – and on those commodities.
There also appears to be a greater consumer understanding of the environmental impacts of beef.
And, in addition, there is a now some finger-pointing going on, with commentators pointing to the China-Brazil commodity trade as being a particular driver of forest destruction. There appears to be some movement towards attempting to pressure China to take some responsibility for ‘imported deforestation’. Does this mean the EU is going to attempt to export its imported deforestation concept to other countries such as China? Possibly.