THE Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto was inked in January 2014, with some of the largest companies in the global palm oil supply chain committing to setting higher standards of sustainability.
Among the key commitments in the manifesto is to fund a scientific study to define and set a threshold for High Carbon Stock (HCS) forests, to prevent palm oil companies from clearing land in these forests.
If these forests are cleared, huge amounts of greenhouses gases are released into the atmosphere.
Sir Jonathan Poritt and Dr John Raison, co-chairmen of the Steering Committee for the High Carbon Stock (HCS) Study spoke to StarBizWeek about the study and how crucial it is to protect these forests, while also allowing development to continue to take place.
The methodology developed by the study is called HCS+ (HCS-plus), and was launched in Kuala Lumpur yesterday.
The study and how it all started
Poritt: Back in November 2013, eight big companies came together to sign the Sustainable Palm oil Manifesto. It was a leadership initiative to demonstrate that these leading companies wanted to go further than what they were obliged to do.
They made a series of additional commitments through the manifesto. This is how our study came to be.
They commissioned the study and will determine how the study is put to use.
The manifesto has three main commitments.
The primary focus of our study is on avoiding deforestation where it is possible and to have a better understanding of what forests need to be protected, because they have so much carbon locked up in them, and which forests are available for conversion.
We have been working on this for 15 months now. We are now right at the end.
In the last 15 to 20 years, there has been increasing pressure on the industry to become more sustainable.
This is primarily about reducing the environmental impact and improving socio-economic benefits for people.
There were always two things which proved to be difficult for the RSPO.
One was dealing with smallholders, who find it hard to bear the additional cost of accreditation.
The other challenge, is how to manage the carbon impact of palm oil.
Raison: Another area that has proven to be very controversial is the rights of the local communities or people living in these forests. They often have traditional rights, but may not have legal rights.
There are many claims about them being overtaken by the big developers.
There is process that is supposed to be followed, it is quite a detailed process – the communities are informed about the consequences of the development and their needs are looked after.
This is still something that is difficult for the industry, globally.
In theory it is all there, the process is there but the implementation is still challenging.
How carbon stock will be measured
Raison: The technical committee looked at this in four areas. One was the estimation of biomass carbon stock which is in the forest above ground carbon, and secondly the carbon in the soil.
The third area was in remote sensing which is the use of satellite data and aerial data to help estimate carbon in the landscape and also to make spacial maps.
Remote sensing is very important as it helps us with many other things as well, like to locate where the peat soil is, you can tell from the vegetation and landscape.
The fourth area is in socio-economics. An important part of the whole equation is how can we develop and ensure two things- the rights and livelihood of people are respected and, and secondly what can be done to improve the socio-economic outcomes for local people in areas surrounding the plantation.
We are developing ways to establish a baseline on the socio economic conditions, and then to be able to track it over time, to see the positive or negative effects.
Things that are important include food security for the communities, who may have been relying on the forest for food.
Access to water is very important, as this can be disrupted, or polluted for example, if the plantation is not well established.
There may some income benefits to the local people as well, such as employment, so this can be tracked as well.
Pressure from environmental NGOs
Poritt: The oil palm industry is now being asked to increase its production, because there will be increased demand in the world.
It is being asked to secure that growth, but with reduced impact on the world’s forests. And this is where the challenge lies.
Some NGOs say forests must not be cut down at all, anymore. This is the zero deforestation position. The industry would have to operate without any more loss of forest at all.
For the Indonesian government, for example, the real priority is to be able to develop some of that forest responsibly, to create opportunities for their rural poor. What we are doing, is setting the definition of high conservation value forests and high carbon stock forests.
We have to define what is meant by high carbon stock. otherwise, saying we shouldn’t use high carbon stock isn’t very helpful.
Most of the work has been geared to defining the threshold between forests that are so high in carbon that they must be protected, and forests which still have carbon in it, but are still quite young and would not be a huge issue to convert for agricultural use.
These are ways for the industry to produce more oil but take less land.
Environmental concerns in Malaysia
Poritt: Malaysia prides itself on having an overall forest protection policy to protect 50% of the nation’s forest cover.
In global terms, this is really good. To keep 50% of your land forested would be very impressive. However, this is not as good as it sounds, unfortunately. A lot of the notional forest area have actually been developed for rubber or other things.
So, there is a question mark about whether Malaysia can make this claim that it has successfully protected 50% of its forests. Quite a lot of it has been encroached on.
Malaysia has a reasonably good story to tell, but it needs to be much more active in protecting its forests than it is now.
Raison: Most of the forests here have had a level of disturbance, particularly logging, or illegal logging sometimes. So a lot of the forests, although they are still presented as intact forests, are actually quite degraded.
So there is a big difference between deforestation and complete removal of the forests, as compared to forests which are in different states of quality.
Setting guidelines for the industry
Poritt: Once the study is completed, these will be guidelines for the companies which have signed up to these commitments on no deforestation, but we want this to be quickly embedded in the RSPO so it becomes a guidance to all its members.
You cannot rely on just these big companies. We need this to be made industry-wide.
We are conscious that this also needs to influence governments because eventually, governments need to put this in law.
The only way to make some of these guidelines materialise is by putting it in the law.
Some of these guidelines go against laws in countries like Indonesia, and in such situations, laws are always going to take precedence.
How quickly governments can begin to get involved in this it is an interesting question.
We have been pushing hard to make links with the government in Indonesia and here in Malaysia.
Raison: One important way of engaging with the authorities will be by conducting trials of this method in different places, and involving the local governments.
This is one way of getting them to see what we are trying to do, and to understand that this is not a threat.
It is a balanced approach that would allow some development as well as forest protection.
It is critical that governments must not feel threatened by what we propose. If they think it is anti-development or threatening, of course they will stay away from it.