KOTA KINABALU: The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) members have been urged against pursuing the strictest environmental and social standards on oil palm smallholders, or risk becoming an elitist certification.
RSPO co-chairman Datuk Carl Bek-Nielsen said that in pursuing high standards, there was a serious risk of eliminating 60% to 70% of the world’s palm oil producers, who will never be able to live up to the RSPO’s standards.
“They (smallholders) see the standards as being too demanding, too expensive and too difficult to reach,” said Bek-Nielsen, who is also the chief executive officer of United Plantations Bhd, at the closing of the RSPO 16th annual roundtable meeting recently.
He said smallholders made up 40% of Malaysia, 50% of Indonesia and 80% of Thailand’s palm oil production, but only 3.5% of the world’s smallholders were RSPO-certified.
“Let it be clear, the smallholders fraternity by and large finds the RSPO standards simply too steep a mountain to climb. Fewer than 1% in Malaysia and Thailand are certified. We cannot turn our backs on them,” added Bek-Nielsen.
He said the RSPO was trying to create a “smallholder friendly RSPO” certification, which would ultimately benefit the smallholder fraternity, as “it would improve yields and, thereby, the livelihood of the smallholders”.
“My view is that the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) standard is an ideal platform and certification for smallholders in Malaysia that should be adopted first,” he said, adding that the RSPO standards were for the medium-to-large players who had the capacity, clout and resources to proceed with it.
“The smallholders already have problems such as putting food on the table for their families, especially in times of depressed palm oil prices which we are experiencing now,” Bek-Nielsen said.
He said members of the RSPO had a shared objective towards fulfilling the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), more commonly known as “the SDG17”.
“The UN’s key objectives and goal are to leave no one behind in its pursuit of fulfilling the SDGs, especially the less privileged members of our fraternity, who find making a living difficult,” he said in cautioning members to ensure that oil palm smallholders did not get squeezed out by high standard requirements.
“It will become a hindrance and an obstacle that goes against the UN’s SDGs,” Bek-Nielsen said, adding that the RSPO would run the risk of becoming a niche certification for an elite group.
“The RSPO certification today is beyond doubt a gold standard for sustainability, it will never become a norm in the future. We all need to wake up to the reality,” he said at the closing of the meeting.
Bek-Nielsen said that like the UN SDGs, the RSPO is about partnership and it was important for the RSPO to see greater smallholders’ inclusion that would see a considerable increase in certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) intake by stakeholders, doing their part by not shying away from what had been produced.
“If we address these points, and combined with concerted efforts from all links of the supply chain, we can adjust our course for increased CSPO production, demand and uptake that will put us firmly on the path towards market transformation,” he added.
Since its inception 14 years ago, the RSPO with 4,000 members has continued to evolve to remain relevant and achieve market transformation though constantly stimulating the spirit of inclusiveness and continuous improvement, said Bek-Nielsen.
A halt to deforestation, protecting and conserving peat, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and strengthening human and labour rights were among key points tabled at the recently concluded RSPO general assembly.