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Down to Earth No. 72 March 2007

Smallholders and the RSPO

Smallholders or peasant farmers play an important role in the world market for edible oils. Around 30% of Indonesian palm oil comes from this sector. So it follows that smallholders should be fully engaged in the multi-stakeholder dialogue called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) which has drawn up principles and criteria for plantation companies, processing plants and other parties involved in palm oil production worldwide.

The Smallholders Task Force was set up specifically to address the interests of this group following the third RSPO Roundtable meeting in Singapore in 2005. It reports directly to the RSPO Executive Board who appointed the Indonesian oil palm advocacy network Sawit Watch and UK-based NGO Forest Peoples Programme to lead it.

One of the reasons for establishing this Task Force was that, for the concept of 'sustainable palm oil' to have any meaning, community plantations must be included, as peasant farmers already produce significant quantities of palm fruits and the area they cultivate and the productivity are increasing year on year. Moreover, smallholders are a very diverse group and the nature of smallholder production differs in different countries. So it is important that the RSPO's Principles and Criteria are developed and applied in ways appropriate to these conditions.

The first Task Force meeting, held in February 2006, resulted in several decisions: that all key RSPO documents are translated into the national languages of producer countries where smallholders are involved in palm oil production; to find out about the conditions of smallholders and their views on sustainable palm oil; to test how the RSPO Principles and Criteria work in the smallholder situation; and to seek more funding for RSPO work on smallholders. It also provided an opportunity for peasant farmers from Indonesia and Malaysia to share their experiences of oil palm cultivation and exchange views on their understanding of sustainable palm oil.

The Smallholder Task Force met again in November 2006, immediately before the fourth Roundtable meeting in Singapore. This was attended by around 100 people from all over the world and representing bodies as different as the agrichemicals giant Syngenta, a community organisation supporting victims of one of Indonesia's oldest plantation groups (Masyarakat Korban LonSum), the International Finance Corporation's Biodiversity Committee and a recently formed peasant farmers association from West Kalimantan (Serikat Petani Kelapa Sawit).

Through presentations, discussions and small working groups, this meeting shared information on recent developments, considered the implications for RSPO standard setting and verification processes and agreed a work programme for the coming year. Key issues were how to get more smallholders aware of the RSPO Principles and Criteria and to get them involved in the development of national standards aimed at the production of sustainable palm oil. Problems that peasant farmers face over land rights and access to credit were recurring themes, so the need for conflict resolution mechanisms featured prominently in the recommendations for further action.

There was also a keen debate over the issue of the effect of pesticides on smallholders. The Malaysian organisation Tenaganita and the Pesticides Action Network- Asia Pacific which are calling for a ban on paraquat, presented graphic evidence of the damage it can cause, particularly to women who do much of the spraying. This was countered by Syngenta, who insisted that their product is safe and effective and promoted their research and training programmes to show how seriously the company takes the safety issue.

The way the Smallholders Task Force has developed and its representation at the fourth RSPO Roundtable meeting has clearly upset certain parties in this multi-stakeholder consultation. The first indications of an industry backlash were evident at the Task Force co-ordination meeting on January 18th in Jakarta. Plantation company representatives felt that the STF had strayed from its original brief, particularly with the publication of two reports by Sawit Watch on the situation of smallholders in Indonesia immediately before the Singapore RSPO meeting (see DTE 71). Promised Land and Ghosts on Our Land set out the issues of peasant oil palm growers in Indonesia. Although some of these issues are common to smallholders elsewhere in the world, many are specific to Indonesia.

As a result, an Indonesian Smallholder Task Force has been set up, led by Dr Asril Darussamin of the Indonesian Oil Palm Commission (KMSI), with Suhandari (WWF Indonesia) as deputy and Norman Jiwan of Sawit Watch as secretary. This group will look at how peasant farmers in Indonesia can implement the RSPO's Principles and Criteria with inputs from research from the various member groups of RSPO in Indonesia. (Sources: Prospek Perkebunan dan Industri Minyak Sawit di Indonesia 2006-20, Bisnisfocus Data Pramata, 2006. Minutes of first Smallholder Task Force meeting, 22/Feb/06 supplemented with information from Sawit Watch staff)

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