Could Accountability in Sustainable Oil Palm Prevent Further Forest Fires?

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Green Commodities Programme (GCP) are working with oil palm stakeholders to ensure this sector’s contributions to the national economy become sustainable in order to prevent further forest fires and deforestation.

The disastrous forest and peatland fires of last year are still fresh in our collective memory. Only a few months ago, when the rains started to assist the firefighting efforts, did the haze clear and could life in the affected provinces on Sumatra, Kalimantan, in Singapore and parts of Malaysia, return to normal.

But it was also predicted that the next round of fires was just around the corner – the El Niño climate anomaly, still being strong, is expected to continue with severe droughts in early 2016. This did galvanize many national as well as international authorities and organizations into action. Plans and programmes that had been on the table for quite some time suddenly were activated together with decisions on how to navigate the road to mitigation ahead.

One of the main players in this context is the UNDP Green Commodities Programme. Its Global Head, Andrew Bovarnick, recently spent a week in Indonesia to conduct meetings with government officials in the ministries of agriculture, forestry, cooperatives and small and medium-sized enterprises (SME), representatives of provincial and district authorities, oil palm estates, NGOs and other stakeholders.

Andrew Bovarnick, Global Head of UNDP Global Commodities Programme

Andrew Bovarnick, Global Head of UNDP Global Commodities Programme

Bovarnick spoke to Indonesia Expat about the programmes designed to ensure that the oil palm sector’s contributions to the national economy become sustainable, starting by describing the extent of the UNDP GCP’s involvement in the oil palm sector in Indonesia.

In partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture, GCP is involved in setting up and strengthening a multi-stakeholder action plan to achieve sustainable palm oil production. GCP also works closely with the Indonesia Palm Oil Platform, which was launched in 2010 by the Ministry of Agriculture. Its main objectives: 1) increasing smallholder productivity 2) improving environmental management and monitoring of the oil palm production areas 3) governance and mediation – especially in respect of empowering communities, and land ownership disputes.

Cooperation and information sharing among a large number of stakeholders of different hues is enormously difficult. But the fires of last year have instilled a feeling of urgency and a conviction that, without major changes in the operating procedures of the sector, more and more severe disasters are unavoidable. The division is standing with its back against the wall, so to speak. Cooperation and aiming for the same positive, sustainable outcome is the only viable path.

This multi-stakeholder approach, quite obviously, requires a change in attitude and behaviour of the stakeholders. Our discussion then centred on how this could be achieved as the opportunity cost of change is very high – in other words, making the sector sustainable will cut deeply into the current income levels enjoyed by palm oil producers. The standard method of expanding operations is still to [legally or illegally] encroach upon primary forest, which has the additional advantage that it yields investment funds from the sale of the felled commercial timber.

Increased production and incomes can, however, also be achieved by increasing productivity, in particular of the smallholders through effective extension services and training, and ensuring access to good quality seeds and capital.

According to Bovarnick, “multinationals cannot prevent palm oil deforestation on their own, as around 50 percent of the fires are smallholder-linked.”

It is thus vitally important to include them in the action plans for sustainability. This will only be possible by improving the productivity of their plots – at the moment they produce less than half of the yield (per hectare) of estates.

By improving these yields an almost doubling of their incomes could be achieved, without expanding the area cultivated, which typically involves the illegal encroachment upon protected forests and national parks.

Increases in productivity are not only the most important option for raising the incomes of the smallholders, but also of the large estates. Where Indonesia’s estates produce on average 30 tonnes per hectare, the equivalent yield in Malaysia is 60 tonnes per hectare. As in the case of the smallholders, if the productivity were in

creased, so would the production without felling and burning another hectare of forest.

But according to Bovarnick, a very important problem will need to be solved first: “Mapping the exact boundaries of the estates, together with the location and size of the smallholders’ plots.” He adds, “Up-to-date maps with these features are unfortunately not yet available. And without this information it will not be possible to design the programme of extension and training.”

The number of smallholders is estimated at between one and two million, a number that clearly needs to be specified more precisely, while also geo-referencing the location and size of their holdings.

The data improvement programme would also need to cover the indigenous forest dwellers, who at present are victims rather than beneficiaries of the developments [achieved by the oil palm sector]. Better data and information about these communities, their sites and nomadic movements, the location of their water resources, hunting grounds, gardens, sacred sites, burial places and all other aspects of their lives, would strengthen their claims to land and avoid land disputes.

UNDP GCP’s main partner is the Ministry of Agriculture. There are, however, many other public and private authorities with interests in the oil palm sector. In order to avoid overlaps and duplication of efforts due to organizational problems, co-chairs have been created which give management positions and decision-making power to, for instance, representatives of the Ministry of Forestry. It seems to work reasonably well.

“But, of course, integration and transparency remains a problem as the number of stakeholders and organizations is very large, and what’s more keeps growing,” says Bovarnick.

After the Ministry of Agriculture launched the Indonesia Oil Palm Platform, the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce (KADIN) created the Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge. The mission was to create an environment in Indonesia which enables and promotes the production of sustainable palm oil that is deforestation-free, expands social benefits, and improves Indonesia’s market competitiveness.

“Cooperation and data sharing is clearly of the utmost importance. We’ll eventually get there,” and according to Bovarnick, most likely a lot faster than initially predicted.

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Hans Rooseboom is a long term resident of Jakarta. He has visited nearly all of Indonesia’s provinces and worked for many years in Ambon, Aceh, Manado and a number of smaller and larger towns on Java. He now enjoys a leisurely life, playing tennis most mornings and writing his blogs and other articles.


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