The OPAL project: Charting paths towards sustainable palm oil production
When the Swiss government called a referendum in March this year on whether to sign a free trade agreement with Indonesia that would abolish tariffs on industrial products, palm oil – of which the Southeast Asian nation is the the world’s largest producer and exporter – was in the hot seat.
The question was polarizing, as is the case with debates involving the oil palm industry.
“It tends to be presented as either the worst thing in the world – terrible for the environment and the rights of the working poor – or as an extremely important and inexpensive product that is very efficient in terms of productivity and contributes to development and people of poverty ”, declared Jaboury Ghazoul, ecologist at the Swiss university ETH Zurich and co-responsible for Adaptive Oil Palm Landscapes (OPAL) which aims to improve the management of oil palm landscapes in tropical Asia, Africa and Latin America.
As they have been doing since the launch of the OPAL project six years ago, Ghazoul and his colleagues have been working on paint a more nuanced picture. Lobbyists who opposed the deal called for a ban on all imports of palm oil from Indonesia, unless proven to be 100 percent sustainable. But transitions to more sustainable supply chains take time, investment, support, and ongoing relationships, none of which are achieved through outright bans, Ghazoul said.
“This is a very crude and unconstructive way of moving forward, which then leads to a number of other problems,” he said: in particular, the dialogue is closed, which means that the country or the region that imposes the ban loses its seat at the table debates on the industry; and the vegetable oil must then come from elsewhere, which can stimulate agricultural expansion.
The ban was not passed: Swiss citizens voted – with a narrow margin – in favor of the free trade agreement. Ultimately, Ghazoul said, the debate was productive in that it “raised the discussion about the issue of sustainability and standards, and how we can apply them in trade – not just at the national level. but also internationally – and work with other countries to improve or develop standards. “
This is an area that OPAL, which is slated to end later this year, has given a lot of attention. “I think you have to recognize that sustainability is not a fixed goal that you can work towards and once you have it you tick a box and that’s it,” Ghazoul said. “Sustainability is a moving target – you can constantly improve the way you get products, the way you get resources, and so on. And it must also be recognized as something that you must develop over time. If you suddenly introduce strict standards, you risk having a lot of negative effects on people’s lives.
Shedding light on how some of these thorny issues are playing out on the ground, Fakhrizal Nashr, a Ph.D. student at Bogor Agricultural University (IPB) in Indonesia – whose research is supported by the OPAL project – explored what helps and hinders sustainability and livelihood creation for independent smallholder oil palm farmers, in Kutai Kartanegara district in the province of East Kalimantan.
He spoke to smallholder communities in various parts of the district and found that these communities engage in palm oil investment in different ways – with key gaps in their results. Essentially, the smallholders who formed cooperatives and engaged directly with the oil palm factories fared much better than those who did not. “If they don’t build these direct relationships, with the mills and with each other, they end up with a very long supply chain – they have to sell to several local traders before that local trader sells it to the mills. oil – and then they only get the bare minimum of profits from the oil palm industry, ”he said.
When profits are low and smallholders are not supported to cope with challenges such as pests and diseases, and to maximize productivity on existing farmland, then this can lead to more expansion and deforestation, Nashr said. As such, he concluded, the social and environmental sustainability of supply chains will only be achieved in the long term if the needs and concerns of smallholders are taken into account and if structures are built around them. ‘them to allow it. “Rural communities are often blamed for the impacts of oil palm on the landscape, and this seems unfair given all that they themselves do with very little access to knowledge, infrastructure or support,” did he declare.
Build understanding and seek solutions through role play
This burden of blame is something the OPAL team has worked hard to dispel – along with the misunderstandings and polarization in oil palm landscapes and supply chains in general. This is something for which the companion modeling methodology they incorporated into the project – a participatory approach that uses role plays and simulation models to solve complex problems – is particularly useful.
“If I show you how the supply chain is organized using a PowerPoint presentation and beautiful images, you will get something out of it”, explains Claude Garcia, co-manager of the OPAL project and tropical ecologist at French International Center for Research and Agronomy for Development (CIRAD). “But if you play a smallholder who is struggling to make ends meet, and you lose your crop because you didn’t do it on time, it’s painful. Your emotions are extremely powerful and they completely change your understanding of what is going on in the landscape and for other people involved.
This often has the effect of undermining stakeholders’ long-held certainties about the situation, he said. “We all have delusions of understanding; we believe we understand the complexity of our supply chain, as well as the strategies and interests of other components, but our knowledge is generally more incomplete than we realize, ”said Garcia. “So the first task in reducing the polarities is to break this illusion and help people understand that things are more complex than they think they are. “
As the OPAL project draws to a close, it is hoped that the nuanced and multi-layered perspectives it has brought to such a controversial issue will live on in hearts, minds and future research.
When you do that, you make change possible, as the team have seen on the pitch, added Garcia. “New cooperatives have been created, new contracts designed, new agreements sealed and new standards adopted. This is how the transition to sustainability occurs.
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