Pierre Bois D’Enghien

Will Major Purchasers Support Small Farmers?

There is a real test brewing for the world’s major purchasers at November’s RSPO Roundtable and General Assembly.

It is this: do these companies support the livelihoods of small farmers?

This test is about the problems that new planting procedure (NPP) under the RSPO have created for small farmers.

The problems are so acute that there are not just one, but two resolutions calling for the NPP to be reviewed and/or revoked for small farmers.

The NPP requires that all new plantings undertake a HCV assessment, develop an implementation plan, get verification and publish all plans.  When the NPP was finalised there was supposed to be a guidance document published for small farmers. This hasn’t happened.

As a consequence, small farmers have been saddled with procedures that are so burdensome and expensive that it effectively deters them from undertaking new plantings, even if their existing plantings have been audited and certified.

This is a major deterrent for small farmer producers for a system that already has enough trouble attracting and certifying small farmers.

Of the 3 million-plus small farmers producing palm oil around the world, only around 1,400 independent small farmers have been certified. Granted, there are other small farmers who have been certified under group certification models within larger operations but in many cases these costs are covered as part of the group model.

One of the major controversies around palm oil certification – and the consequent barriers to entry for some supply chains — has been its impact on small farmers.

This is a problem that RSPO has struggled with since its inception, and it is well recognised among sustainable development professionals, policy experts and businesses that certification can exclude small farmers from certain markets.

Both resolutions ultimately call for the same thing: a suspension of the NPP for small farmers.

One has been launched by NGO Solidaridad with the backing of some major palm oil companies; the second is from a coalition of smaller Indonesian producers.

The Solidaridad resolution goes into more detail, pointing out that NPP requires a pre-audit by assessors. This is a problem.

Many countries do not have in-country assessors, meaning that small farmers on, say, 50ha, would have to engage overseas assessors to get close to passing the NPP test.

There are some bigger questions that should be asked.

Will the world’s major goods companies support something like this? Will Nestle, Ferrero and others support it?

These companies have been making noise about sustainable development and assisting small farmers in developing countries for decades. This is an opportunity for them to put their money where their mouths are.

They were more than happy to cave to campaign demands that all palm oil production be ‘deforestation free’. But they have at the same time said they will support small farmers.

There’s a clear choice for these companies here in terms of supporting sustainable development. And this doesn’t mean condoning large-scale deforestation. Sustainability is a compromise after all.

But consider also whether the world’s major goods companies would put these types of conditions on small farmers and suppliers from Western countries. If a small woodlot in the US was cleared for corn or soybean farming in the US, would companies like Nestle be putting a test on these small farmers? Would Ferrero be putting these tests on Italian farmers? Would there be a barrier to stop them selling into the supply chain? This is unlikely.

This is also a test for the more radical NGOs that say they support sustainable development. Are they actually going to support small farmers?

There hasn’t been much publicity around this, and nor is there likely to be. But Western companies should consider their response very carefully. The world’s small farmers and the companies, NGOs and governments that support them will be watching them very carefully.

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.