Pierre Bois D’Enghien

RSPO: Room for improvement

RSPO is generally considered the ‘gold standard’ for palm oil certification. There are good reasons for this. The organisation and its processes have been in place for more than ten years. It has a broad range of stakeholder input. It has ‘brand recognition’ among producers, financial institutions, purchasers and other bodies.

But there is no doubt that the focus of the scheme is Southeast Asia. This isn’t surprising. Close to 90 per cent of the world’s oil palm is grown in Southeast Asia.  The scheme’s genesis came from concerns about the environment in that region.

This also means there is a level of antipathy – albeit unintended – to other parts of the world where oil palm is grown. Because of this, there are certain elements of RSPO that simply don’t work in other contexts.

Take, for example, RSPO’s criteria and indicators on natural pest control. They require the reduction or elimination of all pesticides that are classified under the heading ‘1A’ or ‘1B’ in terms of their toxicity by the World Health Organisation. They also require the same of any substances listed under the Rotterdam Convention.

Now look at blast disease, which affects oil palm crops – particularly pre-nurseries – in Africa. Blast disease is very destructive. A severe case in Ghana in 1994 decimated the GOPDC’s (Ghana Oil Palm Development Company) growing stock that year.  The only effective treatment of is the application is carbofuran (carbamate family). This is a pesticide that falls under the ‘1B’ classification (highly hazardous). It is toxic. But most parts of the world – with a few exceptions – permit its use. Those exceptions are the US, Canada, EU and a number of African countries that don’t grow oil palm at industrial level. It comes under the Rotterdam Convention requiring certain handling protocols – but this is not the same as a ban.

It is recognised as the only treatment for blast disease in oil palm by the International Fund for Agricultural Development – a United Nations Agency.

Leaving blast disease untreated can wipe out operations. One agricultural development program suspended loan repayments from farmers following a blast disease incident.

But because the disease – and the insect thought to carry it – aren’t prevalent in Southeast Asia, there’s no need to follow this treatment pathway.

The RSPO P&C state that “There is no prophylactic use of pesticides, except in specific situations identified in national Best Practice guidelines.” But prophylactic use is essential with blast; when soil moisture drops below a certain point, trees become susceptible, and national best practice guidelines don’t exist in most African countries.

The P&C also state that the organisation will “urgently” identify alternatives for these chemicals. But the fact is that there is no urgency outside of Africa.

This is something of a policy vacuum here. There’s no doubt that when the P&Cs were written, all the best intentions were there, whether it was the development of national guidelines and interpretations, or coming up with an alternative to carbofuran. But at this stage this is a problem that has fallen through the cracks.

Here’s an example of the dilemma. Carbofuran itself has been recommended as an alternative to other more toxic pesticides that are banned under the Stockholm Convention.

So what are farmers in Africa actually supposed to do?

The obvious pathways are to have national interpretations completed, or to develop national best practice guidelines. But this is easier said than done. This takes time and money and often requires a level of political and bureaucratic will that is often lacking.

What this particular gap underlines is that the principles of RSPO may have been put together in Singapore or Geneva, but they aren’t applicable to every context.

It also underlines the fact that sometimes the will and the financial means may be there to implement RSPO rules at the firm level, but at the national level it is not high on the list.

A ‘watering down’ of the principles and criteria on pesticides would not be acceptable. Perhaps, instead, it would be possible for RSPO to accept interim national interpretations, or accept national interpretations on specific issues.

Would this be possible? Under RSPO’s organisational rules it’s likely such a measure could work via a measure under the Board of Directors. It would also be likely to be subject to pushback from RSPO’s NGO members.

But what are the alternatives? Plantation developers are likely to go ahead and develop in Africa, regardless of whether certification is available. There are alternative means of financing. The market for vegetable oil in Africa is large and getting larger. This means that these operations will be subject to no RSPO rules.

One of the points that has been made about palm oil certification is that it is the only agricultural commodity with such widely accepted and high standards. No other crop has the same level of scrutiny. One of the dangers is that if the bar is set too high for many operations for palm oil, those who are able to access forest and land for plantation development will either develop or switch to another crop with low (or no) level of scrutiny whatsoever. Rules that RSPO has in place around high conservation value, conservation set-asides, etc. will be nowhere to be seen.

This can’t be an outcome that RSPO or NGOs will be happy with. This will mean worse environmental, social and economic outcomes across the board. In other words, a compromise isn’t just preferable, it’s necessary – particularly if the overall objective is ‘sustainability’.

By Pierre Bois d'Enghien

Pierre Bois D’Enghien is an agronomist and agricultural expert from Belgium. He has spent his career advising African and international companies about agriculture and sustainability, including SOCFIN in the Cote d’Ivoire, the Feronia group in Congo, and the Belgian companies Condroz Energies. He is an acknowledged expert on plantation agriculture, including palm oil.