Wednesday, November 11, 2009

RSPO - The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) is a voluntary standard which provides a framework for the definition of a sustainable palm oil. The crux of the RSPO framework revolves around three key sustainability elements; those are social responsibility, economic development and environmental aspects of the palm industry, which basically ranges from the oil palm plantation, through the processing stages and all the way to the final use. The RSPO was initially formed with the view of guiding the entire industry globally towards an industry that is not only deemed as profitable but also responsible, and hence ensures its competitiveness in the global market, especially in countries where sustainability is vital, such as in Europe where the NGOs have been particularly critical towards palm oil, alleging that it destroys natural forests as well as endangering the orang-utans. The RSPO Principles and Criteria, in its current form, is relatively robust in defining practices that are socially and economically responsible, such as the deterrents of child labour, respecting the rights of indigenous land owners and responsible towards all legal obligations. However, recently with the surge in interest in climate change, the palm industry have been severely criticized for its rampant clearings of tropical rainforest (and its subsequent release of Greenhouse Gases, GHG) in the development of oil palm plantations and hence the RSPO too was/is condemned for not including a sufficiently robust environmental-sustainability criteria to mitigate such GHG-intensive practices. As such, the RSPO has, by the directives of the executive board, commissioned a committee dubbed the GHG Working Group (GHG WG) to further deliberate on this issue so that amendments to the RSPO Principles and Criteria could be made for it to be equally robust from an environmental perspective.

The GHG WG, which is a multi-stakeholder committee, which is composed of representatives from the palm oil producers (MPOA, GAPKI etc), consumers (Neste, Unilever) and relevant technical experts, was tasked to amend the existing RSPO standards so that the GHG-intensive steps currently being practiced are improved to reduce these nasty global warming gasses. I have been keeping myself abreast with the discussions happening in the RSPO GHG WG, as well as attended the recent Palm Oil conference on GHG emissions organized by MPOC, and I am absolutely surprised and frustrated by the quality of arguments being put forth by our so-called technical experts in the industry. I appreciate that a much stricter standard would mean a higher capital investment and operational expenditure for a lot of the smallholders, and the resistance displayed is very much within expectation. However, a scientific and technical argument must never be countered by emotionally driven arguments and lack of professionalism. I was very disappointed to see that even our so-called “associate professor” from a reputable local university made the blunder of being technically “questionable” in his effort of supporting the industry’s “fight” for a lenient standard on behalf of the palm oil producers. The relevant foreign experts on GHG emissions from palm oil industry would present his case, backed-up by scientific data, and our fellow Malaysian experts would counter the arguments emotionally, bordering being unprofessional!

Generally, converting natural forest for the development of oil palm plantation, is commonly practiced in the East, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, and this will contribute significantly to the release of sequestered carbon from the forest (locked in the form of biomass) to the atmosphere in the form of CO2, a typical climate change related gas. And whilst I fully appreciate, without the slightest doubt, that such forest conversions could improve the socio-economic status of the people in remote Sabah and Sarawak, and therefore lifting them off poverty, it is from a GHG perspective still undesirable no matter how much socio-economic improvements it enables. If socio-economic development of our country is deemed more important than the “rich-man’s” GHG standard, then by all means please do convert the forest into oil palm plantations! No one is stopping you especially since RSPO is a VOLUNTARY standard, which means that if you comply, well done, but if you don’t, no one will penalize you! But do not ask the RSPO to certify it as being sustainable. Because it is not. It is scientifically wrong! If RSPO, currently regarded by the larger community as an impartial non-profit organization responsible for the definition and certification of sustainable palm oil, certifies a non-sustainable palm oil as sustainable, then the entire certification scheme will be useless and the credibility of the RSPO will be in question!

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