Interview: Thoughts on the RSPO

Down to Earth No. 72 March 2007

Zulfahmi, former director of Riau NGO forest network Jikalahari, is a member of Sawit Watch and has attended several meetings of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), including the latest (RT4) in Singapore, last November. Down to Earth interviewed him about what the RSPO process means for peasant farmers growing oil palm in Riau.

What did you hope to achieve at the fourth RSPO Roundtable meeting?

The main aim was to make sure that all RSPO members are fully committed to implementing the Principles and Criteria (P&C). At the meeting which Sawit Watch organised in Jakarta before we left for Singapore, we all agreed that it was important to get more Indonesian smallholders involved in the RSPO's Task Force on Smallholders. Several of the community members in our group, particularly those from West Kalimantan, were keen to use this event to press for a halt to expansion of oil palm plantations in Indonesia and the human rights violations associated with them.

And what do you think about the outcomes of RT4?

This meeting was more about evaluation; there was no big advance from the decisions made at previous Roundtable meetings. On the contrary, the presentations by Malaysian companies that the P&C should be changed to make their implementation easier and cheaper is a step backwards. The current P&C are the result of a compromise. It would be difficult for us to accept them if they were further weakened.

How familiar are NGOs and communities with the RSPO and the Principles and Criteria?

Overall, not many NGOs know in detail what the RSPO is about. In Riau, some NGOs do have some understanding about the RSPO due to informal discussions held through Jikalahari, but few know about what the Principles and Criteria have to offer. In Jambi, NGOs are perhaps better informed as Yayasan Keadilan Rakyat (YKR) has done a lot of work. But at the community level awareness is still very low, mainly because the NGOs have not done a lot of public awareness work yet. Few know how they could use the Principles and Criteria (P&C).

So what needs to be done?

We NGOs need to hold meetings at village level to explain to local farmers what the RSPO Principles and Criteria are and how to use them. Yayasan Elang has held a meeting in Pekanbaru, but it takes much more than one meeting to really understand the whole process. There must be intensive follow-up sessions. Once people know about the P&C, they can spread information and use them as a tool for advocacy. It is also important that peasant farmers see to what extent they are able to implement the RSPO rules which were really drawn up with big companies in mind.

What problems do the RSPO standards present for smallholders?

With the P&C as they are now, communities are going to have great difficulty in meeting the RSPO standard for 'sustainable palm oil'. For example, companies can afford heavy equipment to clear land without burning, but communities use fire because they don't have the money or technology to do otherwise. Also the P&C require proper management plans for oil palm plantations, but local farmers don't have any experience of working like that so this will be hard for them to implement. Another of the RSPO Principles is that High Conservation Value Forest (HCVF) must be protected in oil palm developments. But how can communities go through the complicated formal process of assessing whether the forest they want to clear is HCVF or not? There are still no answers to these questions.

How can the Smallholder Task Force initiative help Riau's farmers?

Peasant farmers in West Kalimantan set up their own association last June - the SPKS (Serikat Petani Kelapa Sawit). This represents their interests vis-à-vis the government and large companies and also represents the first step towards a national small holders organisation. We hope that by April we will have established a similar organisation in Riau and there are plans for Jambi and West Sumatra too.

Why is this work a priority?

Riau is one of the largest producers of Indonesian palm oil - some 25% of total production. There are already 1.9 million hectares of oil palm plantations with a government total target of 3.1 million ha, yet the total area of Riau is 8.5 million ha! Together with the pulp and paper industry, this is a real threat to Riau's rapidly vanishing forests. Deforestation in Riau is running at over 5% - perhaps the highest in Indonesia.

There are real dangers for the environment and for communities if vast areas are given over to growing any single commodity. If the price falls, say due to political problems or a consumer boycott, then many farmers will suffer. Other countries are also expanding their oil palm production so there could be a boom and bust cycle in world prices.

But no-one seems to bother about this now. Most farmers believe the government propaganda that the future for oil palm is bright, especially with demand due to biofuels. They don't consider the dangers of this monoculture, including droughts and floods due to forest destruction.

There is also the issue of the increasing control of large areas of land by companies. Most of Riau is controlled by large-scale oil palm and pulp wood plantations using modern practices which are completely alien to local people. Unless there is some transfer of knowledge, communities are going to lose out as they will not be able to grow a high-quality product.

And we must think about food security. At the community level, rice fields are being converted to oil palm by companies and smallholders. Traditional methods of farming are disappearing, including rotational cultivation, are no longer possible due to the pressure on land.

So what are the key issues for NGOs' future work in Riau?

We need to stop the expansion of oil palm and pulpwood plantations in Riau as there is a desperate shortage for land for people to make their livelihoods. It is also important to settle the hundreds of land disputes created by plantations. We would like to see a redistribution of assets, so that land is gradually returned to communities and they can decide how to make their own living.