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Reflecting on 2019 – valuing progress over perfection in sustainable palm production


Looking back at 2019, what do you see? I see a year of progress.

Will we hit 100 percent deforestation free supply chain targets in palm oil? No.

Have we made significant progress in transitioning palm producers away from deforestation? Absolutely.

In the spirit of the season of gratitude and thankfulness, shouldn’t we give thanks for such progress?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve attended a number of events on sustainable commodities and landscapes. In nearly all I’ve been asked the question “so what’s new at GAR?”

My answer has largely been the same: “Nothing, just grinding through the work.” It’s not an exciting answer. And most people look a bit deflated. But to me this lies at the heart of sustainability and at the heart of my observations of 2019. This has been a year of focusing on getting the work done.

Grafting away on supply chain traceability

The reality is achieving supply chain transparency requires hard yakka as they say in Australia – that’s hard work for the rest of the world.

Achieving 100 percent traceability to plantation by end of 2020 across our entire palm supply chain takes graft. We are on track to be around 70 percent TTP for our entire palm supply by end of this year, but we also identified some stumbling blocks. Traceability for supplier mills with a predominantly smallholder supply base is challenging. Both in its resource intensity and in convincing the agents and brokers – the middlemen – that it is in their interests to participate.

To help us achieve traceability in these particularly challenging areas, we launched an additional supplier support programme, Ksatria Sawit.

The programme is relatively young, but already showing extremely positive results. To date, Ksatria Sawit has been run in regencies from Aceh to Lampung with more than 50 mills signing up. Through these mills, we have reached 34,665 dealers and farmers who manage a collective plantation area of 271,989 hectares.

Reaching dealers and farmers through our Ksatria Sawit programme.

Building a better platform for shared action on deforestation

Traceability is one side of the palm oil supply chain coin, transparency the other. There has a persistent demand for publishing of concession maps and sharing of data over the last decade. Technology has improved providing land managers with better visibility of the landscape, more cheaply and closer to real time.

The argument is if this information was more openly available, all players in the supply chain would be able to act faster to spot and then address deforestation.

Such an open platform poses a couple of challenges. One is that map sharing is restricted in line with national regulations and guidance in both Malaysia and Indonesia. The second is, to be truly effective, all players in the supply chain need to agree on a single approach and data set, adopt the same platform and criteria, and agree to take shared responsibility for the data generated through the platform to determine whether those changes represent deforestation or not.

GAR, along with nine other major palm oil producers and buyers, are now collaborating to support and fund the development of a new, publicly available radar-based forest monitoring system known as Radar Alerts for Detecting Deforestation (RADD).

Developed by Wageningen University and Satelligence, and facilitated by World Resources Institute, the RADD system will use radar waves, to penetrate cloud cover and gather forest change information without being affected by clouds or sunlight.

RADD will be the first radar-based monitoring system of this scale to make deforestation alerts publicly available. Once complete, the alerts will be available on Global Forest Watch and Global Forest Watch Pro, and the methodology behind the alerts will be published.

Development will continue over the next two years, allowing partners in the project to test the system, and develop the necessary trust that the system will be used appropriately and positively to help drive change and sustainable practices on the ground.

That timeline might further frustrate critics who think we should have gotten to this point sooner. I understand the frustration but choose to look more positively at the progress. After all, this is as much about changing cultures – moving from closed systems to open ones takes trust, and trust takes time to earn – as it is about stopping deforestation.

Landscape approach transformation takes time

Our partnerships with other companies and local governments on landscape projects in areas like Riau, Aceh, and West Kalimantan continued this year, but progress remains slow. Recently Justin Adams spoke on an Innovation Forum mini-podcast of the dilemma of needing to move fast while also moving together. This sums up the conundrum we face with the landscape approach.

While the coalition of public and private actors in a landscape-based approach is effective in solving problems that one party might not be able to tackle alone, the large number of different parties involved also means it takes time to get consensus and move things along.

The Siak Green District initiative in Riau this year, took six months to finalise and sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the district head, to signify collective commitment to invest in and align sustainability implementation with the district’s plans for sustainable land use development.

Despite the time taken to get to this stage, we believe this approach will bring lasting transformation because more parties are now on the same page. And the opportunities for synergy go beyond conservation. The companies have agreed on other ambitious targets in, to name a few, NDPE compliant villages, smallholder sustainability, district-level palm oil traceability and social risk mitigation. In 2020, the partners should start reporting, as a coalition, on the impacts of these efforts.

Speaking on a panel at the recent Innovation Forum on sustainable landscapes and commodities.

Looking ahead

It is always easier to reflect on the failures, on what has not been done. This can be demoralising. And it risks us overlooking how much progress has been made, and the effort it has required, every day, to get here.

The palm oil sector is changing, those who once resisted that change are coming on board. Collectively we should remind ourselves that this progress matters. That in sustainability, as in life, the journey is the thing.

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Anita Neville is the Senior Vice President of Group Corporate Communications at GAR. She has over 20 years of experience in the sustainable agriculture and forestry. Prior to GAR, Anita worked with international non-profit organisations such as Rainforest Alliance and WWF. She is also a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) auditor, specialising in the social aspects of the respected forestry standard.
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