Palm Oil Industry Facing Up to Sustainability Issues

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14 Jun 2017 --- Some of the largest global players in palm oil have teamed up with NGOs to save orangutans endangered because of habitat loss, forming a new alliance to help the animals and other wildlife in landscapes impacted by the ever-increasing industry. The group includes leaders in palm oil such as Wilmar, Sime Darby and Musim Mas, together with the Orangutan Land Trust and a number of wildlife conservation experts and NGOs, to form the PONGO Alliance.

This new initiative aims to “support the management of orangutans” found on non-certified palm oil concessions in Borneo. 
 
Research conducted by NGO Borneo Futures for the Orangutan Land Trust and Wilmar International, shows that there are ways for the palm oil industry and orangutans to coexist. This is in contrast to a widespread belief that palm oil cultivation is not compatible with wildlife protection. 
 
As members of the PONGO Alliance, the palm oil companies acknowledge their responsibility for ensuring that palm oil cultivation is done with minimal impact on local biodiversity and commit to promoting the use of sustainable landscape management (so-called ‘landscape approach’) across the entire island of Borneo.
 
The landscape approach does not look at one particular palm oil or other concession but at the ecoregion as a whole because wild animals do not stay within the boundaries of particular concessions, but move across the whole landscape which they consider as their natural habitat.

“The PONGO Alliance’s approach is to engage with all stakeholders on the ground, including palm oil companies, local governments and local communities to implement best management practices for the protection of orangutans and wildlife in the oil palm landscape,” says Ginny Ng Siew Ling, Forest Sustainability Manager with Wilmar International.

Considered to be critically endangered the population of orangutans has more than halved in the last five decades because of poaching, intensive agriculture and illegal logging. The largest population lives on Borneo, which is shared by three countries, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

There are around 10,000 orangutans living on non-certified palm oil concessions who are at risk of extinction if their habitats are not managed properly.
 
Even though RSPO certification and palm oil companies adopting their own corporate policies of banning deforestation, no cultivation of peatland and no exploitation do, to a certain degree, help, the number of orangutans left are at a critically low level. 
 
“Our research shows that the collaborative approach at the landscape level can become a game changer for wildlife conservation. The next step now is to scale this up and sit down with all palm oil companies having orangutans on their concessions in Borneo to discuss a joint action plan,” says Dr. Erik Meijaard, an independent researcher at the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (a partnership between five Australian universities) and the founder of Borneo Futures.

The PONGO Alliance was launched at the annual European conference of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in London yesterday (June 13).
 
Increased RSPO membership 
Almost 300 new members have signed up for RSPO membership in the last year bringing the total to more than 3,400 members. 
 
According to the latest figures from RSPO, of those required to submit their annual communication on progress on certified sustainable palm oil (ACOP), almost 67% did so.
 
These were joined by an additional 255 smaller supply chain members, who reported voluntarily, showing the commitment of SMEs to the process. 
 
Total members submitting was 1,322 compared to 1,127 in the previous reporting period. 

When asked by FoodIngredientsFirst what is pushing up RSPO membership, a spokesperson said that the global demand for fats and oils is increasing in emerging economics and population increase. 

However, the organization does not currently have any targets relating to what it expects membership to increase to over the next five years, however it is expected to jump. 

When asked specifically about the 33% of members which have not yet communicated, the spokesperson added: “We will chase them and ultimately they face having membership suspended.”

“Sustainable palm oil is becoming the norm for Europe and for food sector I would say we are already there, we need to penetrate the big markets and India, Indonesia and China to see CSPO as a global norm.” 

The data was released at the annual European Roundtable event in London yesterday where around 400 delegates gathered to discuss innovations and partnerships to transform the palm oil supply chain towards sustainability in Europe and around the world.

The increase in voluntary submissions is an encouraging signal, according to the RSPO. However, it still demonstrates that a significant proportion of members are not communicating, leading to questions about what actually being a member means in real terms and the consequences of not reporting on time. 
 
During the conference there was also the launch of new partnerships which will strengthen RSPO’s work in growing countries. The Roundtable will be engaging with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to promote business practices on children's rights and workers welfare in the palm oil sector.

The collaboration will seek to pilot and implement a UNICEF workplace program on rights of children and working families in the palm oil sector, mainstream child rights into RSPO sustainability standards and activities, as well as to create awareness on child rights among RSPO members.

“It’s important for the industry to acknowledge the social issues it faces, if we want to find sustainable solutions. The partnership with UNICEF represents an opportunity to collaborate, promote best practices across the industry and address some of the existing gaps in our sector,” said Darrel Webber, Chief Executive Officer of RSPO.

The RSPO partnered with the World Resource Institute to create “GeoRSPO”. 
 
An interactive mapping platform featuring concession maps submitted by RSPO grower members is now live on www.rspo.org. It shows detailed satellite mapping information on RSPO members certified mills, land concessions, overlaid with information on tree cover, topography and any fire alerts. It is a powerful tool to monitor developments in RSPO members’ palm oil concessions.

A Greenpeace spokesperson told FoodIngredientsFirst: “Given the havoc the palm oil industry has wreaked on Indonesia's environment, companies have a responsibility to work together to protect and restore whatever forest and peatland remains. But they have an even greater responsibility to cut deforestation and destruction out of their supply chain. Otherwise, these initiatives risk being just sticking plasters.” 

Barry Callebaut Joins the Palm Oil Innovation Group
Elsewhere and under its sustainability strategy Forever Chocolate, Barry Callebaut has committed to have 100% of the ingredients in its products coming from sustainable sources as well as zero deforestation in its supply chain. Sustainable palm oil plays an important role in fulfilling both of these objectives.

The company says: “But we wanted to be an even stronger driver of the transformation of the palm oil industry. This is why we have joined the front running members of the Palm Oil Innovation Group (POIG). POIG is a is a multi-stakeholder initiative consisting of NGOs as well as progressive palm oil producers and buyers that strive to achieve the adoption of responsible palm oil production practices and creating and promoting innovations in the sector. Building on the work of RSPO, POIG has introduced additional sustainability criteria on palm oil production, such as no development of palm oil plantations on High Conservation Stock (HCS) areas or peat land and strict criteria against gross labor and human rights violations.”

“As a buyer we recognize our responsibility to contribute to a sustainable palm oil sector. By joining POIG we commit to the highest standard and can drive implementation of sustainability criteria in the sector without compromise,” Massimo Selmo, Head of Global Sourcing at Barry Callebaut said.

by Gaynor Selby

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