Mongabay Series: Indonesian Forests, Indonesian Palm Oil

Indonesia could collaborate with RSPO, official study finds

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Tricky politics surrounding palm oil and regulation in the archipelago.

Indonesia could collaborate with RSPO, official study finds
  • A new study reveals how the government's sustainable palm oil scheme, ISPO, might work with the industry-led Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.
  • The study, sanctioned by the government and the RSPO. identifies similarities and differences between the two certification schemes.
  • The RSPO has higher environmental standards than ISPO, but ISPO is mandatory for all Indonesian growers.

The Indonesian government’s sustainable palm oil certification program announced the findings of a joint study with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil on Wednesday that details how the two systems might collaborate in the country’s problem-fraught oil palm industry.

The study, which took two years to complete, marks a significant step in developing a working relationship between the agriculture ministry and external sustainability schemes like the RSPO,  an industry-led association whose members agree to adhere to more stringent standards than those dictated by Indonesian law.

“Findings from the joint study showed how ISPO and RSPO could complement each other and offer robust solutions for all stakeholders beyond what each could accomplish alone,” said Tiur Rumondang, head of the RSPO’s Indonesia office.

The ministry’s own certification scheme, the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil Standard (ISPO), is running as a pilot program with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Riau province that hopes to certify 5,000 smallholders by the end of this year. ISPO aims to rein in illegal practices in the production of what has become the world’s most controversial edible oil by requiring plantations to comply with the rules and regulations of the various ministries, agencies and levels of government. 

It is also seen by experts as the best chance the country has at engaging its sizable contingent of “smallholders” — a term used to reference the small and medium-sized growers which together account for at least 40 percent of Indonesian palm oil production.

Oil palm fruit in Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Oil palm fruit in Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Tomoyuki Uno, Asia manager of the UNDP’s Green Commodities Programme, heralded the joint study as the first step in a long process of finding lasting, systemwide solutions to curb environmentally damaging practices in the oil palm industry.

“This meeting officially identified the similarities and differences between the two certification systems,” Uno said. “It marks the start of a process where the two systems not only facilitate simpler and more cost-effective certification arrangements, but actively work together to recommend improvements of the schemes but also the underlying regulations.”

What is ISPO?

Under ISPO, all oil palm firms operating in Indonesia must undergo a process that ensures their compliance with Indonesian law. Various regulations ban the conversion of state-owned land or conservation forests for plantations, as well as the use of destructive land-clearing practices or new plantings on carbon-rich peatland.

The scheme is also a direct response to industry-led sustainability and zero-deforestation pledges like the RSPO and the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP) that some in the government view as an infringement on Indonesian sovereignty. One agriculture ministry official demanded IPOP’s dissolution at a press conference this week, for example, though it wasn’t clear if he was speaking on the ministry’s behalf.

The head of ISPO himself dismissed questions as to why the scheme lacked some of the stricter protections of the RSPO, asking why the Indonesian government should have to follow the lead of a foreign association.

“We have our own regulations,” Herdradjat Natawidjaja, chairperson of the ISPO secretariat, told Mongabay. “We cannot follow other regulations. Maybe we can follow international conventions but it should be ratified in parliament to become our regulation. That is the procedure. Many international conventions have been ratified in Indonesia and become regulations and the basis for ISPO certification.”

Herdradjat Natawidjaja is interviewed at the launch of the joint study on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of UNDP
Herdradjat Natawidjaja is interviewed at the launch of the joint study on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of UNDP

What’s the difference between ISPO and RSPO?

The study, conducted by auditor PT Mutuagung Lestari, highlights three key differences between the two certification programs — the most significant involving the definition and treatment of High Conservation Value (HCV) areas within concession zones.

The RSPO offers a greater protections than ISPO for HCV forests within oil palm concessions, as well as more stringent requirements for the development of new plantations than those required by Indonesian law. The roundtable’s members must assess their land holdings with an HCV toolkit that, in some instances, identifies HCVs in land the government had previously designated for agricultural use.

ISPO, on the other hand, stands behind the government’s own assessments of the country’s forest cover. The official position is that any land available as a concession by the agriculture ministry has already been marked for plantation use and is therefore free of forests in need of protection.

In reality, however, state maps are rife with overlapping concessions and inaccurately marked forest land. The entire city of Palangkaraya, for example, sits within a state forest, according to the government’s maps, and under national law any construction or conversion for plantation use should be declared illegal.

The problem is so significant that inaccurate maps are behind hundreds of land conflicts a year and remain one of the leading causes of human rights violations in Indonesia. The government is trying to establish a single, accurate map, but the project will take years to complete.

“ISPO has kicked up this kind of dust as well the large plantations, they are usually not in state forest areas, but smallholders they could be everywhere,” Uno said. “Not all of them are malicious; they didn’t want to go and cut the forest down, maybe they were there for a long time and someone just drew a line around them,” he added.

Is ISPO enough?

The British government said it won’t recognize ISPO as a sustainability program until it can provide foreign governments with proof of independent oversight.

“We buy palm oil, [but] we don’t know anything about ISPO,” said Andy Roby, senior forestry advisor for the UK Climate Change Unit at the British Embassy. “We don’t understand it, we don’t know where it comes from. There is a credibility issue about the way the standard was developed and the way the system runs.”

Andy Roby, of the British Embassy, speaks at the launch event on Wednesday. On the stage behind him sit the RSPO's Indonesia director, Tiur Rumondang, and ISPO chief Herdradjat Natawidjaja. Photo courtesy of UNDP
Andy Roby, of the British Embassy, speaks at the launch event on Wednesday. On the stage behind him sit the RSPO’s Indonesia director, Tiur Rumondang (left), and ISPO chief Herdradjat Natawidjaja. Photo courtesy of UNDP

The lack of independent monitoring, and the Indonesian government’s lack of policies on the protection of HCV forests within palm oil concessions, has left people like Roby to question why the word “sustainable” was included in the program in the first place.

“It is not a sustainability standard, it is actually just the law and that is fine, but don’t try and sell it as a sustainability standard,” Roby said. “The law hasn’t caught up with best practices in sustainability. I mean peat for instance, planting on peat, high conservation value [forests], social issues, the law simply isn’t good enough.”

The manager of WWF Indonesia’s sustainable palm oil program, Putra Agung, said the green group would support ISPO, but remained wary of its looser environmental standards.

“I think that the basic differences will be an obstacle in the future [but] for us, any scheme where the core is sustainability, we will support it,” Agung said.

Uno sees these issues as something that can be worked out as the system evolves. “It is a work in progress,” he said, explaining that ISPO’s leadership are open to suggestions from civil society and that the UNDP is committed to working within the system to establish a framework for sustainable palm oil development in Indonesia.

“The baseline is ISPO is following all of the laws and if there is any issue with forest protection, that actually goes back to the priorities of this country,” Uno said. “It’s a democratic country, so the people have agreed that that is the system and if there are too many nice forests in the productive landscape and they are not protected by law, that is something we are going to try to bring up.”

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