The COWI report puts an emphasis on providing technical assistance to smallholders and farmers in developing countries in order to improve sustainability efforts and, where possible, reduce levels of deforestation and degradation. This is arguably the strongest recommendation put forward by COWI. But what should this kind of technical assistance actually look like?
There are several parts to this question.
The first is who should be paying for this from the donor side? Clearly the development assistance agencies of developed countries would be the sponsors. However, they shouldn’t be the responsible agencies. Why? Because climate policies drive decisions of these agencies. Rather, the programmes should go via multilateral organisations such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation, for which the remit is largely technical and the focus remains on alleviating poverty and growing wealth.
Secondly – which domestic agency should actually be delivering the assistance in the recipient countries? In all countries, it should be the agency that is responsible for delivering agricultural services for palm oil. In Malaysia, this is obviously the Malaysian Palm Oil Board and its related entities. It’s arguable that the MPOB is the world’s leading agency for palm oil research and services.
These departments deliver extension services to farmers and smallholders; agricultural extension is simply another name for disseminating technical and practical information to farmers.
Thirdly – which countries should be the recipients of such assistance? It’s arguable that Malaysia isn’t in significant need of technical assistance; as stated above, the country’s palm oil agencies are the world’s best. However, simple capacity enhancements within the agency would be ideal, i.e. increasing their ability to implement their programmes. This could be something as simple as replanting programmes.
What would truly benefit Malaysia would be two things.
First, bringing its smallholder farmers into compliance with the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil standard. This would not mean a significant amount of work in terms of bringing the farmers up to standard; Malaysia’s regulations for palm oil are based on agricultural best practices. Despite this, audit and certification is time-consuming.
Second, establishing a contact group or committee to ensure the recognition of MSPO by the EU’s authorities on sustainability.
This would serve two purposes. First, it would ensure that Malaysia’s small farmers aren’t cut off from European markets. Second, it would ensure that Europe’s supply of palm oil is sustainable.
The final question is precisely what sort of information farmers would be receiving as part of these extension services.
The target that all parties undoubtedly agree on is increasing yields from existing stock. For producers, this simply means higher revenues and higher profitability. For those on the other end of the transaction, it means – potentially – lower land use and therefore lower levels of deforestation and forest degradation.
Similarly, all parties would agree on minimising inputs. Again, for producers, this means lower costs, and in terms of environmental management it means lower externalities such as nutrient loads.
These solutions are win-win for both the environment and for producers.
Where producer countries and governments should be wary is when training and development assistance goes beyond smallholder training and steps into high-level land-use planning. This isn’t much of a problem in Malaysia, but would likely be so in other countries.
And the wariness isn’t so much to do with what the environmental and economic outcomes might be, but how and whether any assistance can adequately deal with the considerable complications of land use in developing countries.
Assumptions are often made by well-meaning Westerners that the things they take for granted – stable land tenure, functioning titling and cadastral systems – work equally well in developing countries. This is simply not the case. Arguably the best example related to palm oil in this vein is the often-touted idea that ‘land swaps’ for oil palm plantation developers can take place easily. This would involve a developer swapping forested land for degraded land. But this requires ensuring that there aren’t competing claims on the land, whether from various levels of government, communities and other commercial interests.
The worst outcome in these situations is that pursuing such unattainable grand plans would have a real opportunity cost. The time and resources of an assistance programme – which could produce positive outcomes on the ground via farmer training – would be wasted. Instead, the mantra should be: simple, achievable, and focused on the farmers.