Govt can play greater role in palm smallholders’ certification: RSPO

KOTA KINABALU: The government can play a greater role in the certification of small-time palm oil growers, especially breaking down barriers to entry and on land matters, according to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

Smallholders account for 40% of the country’s production.

Asked about the general sentiments of smallholders when it comes to certification, RSPO head of smallholder programme Ashwin Selvaraj (pix) said that there is a lack of inclination towards certification as the current system is not built by taking into account their realities and the barriers to entry.

He said in the case of Malaysia, with the introduction of the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO), there is a lot of movement and engagement with the government in addressing the core aspects of certification.

“They are more or less raising the bar up in mobilising farmers and engaging and there is also awareness because of the commitment of getting smallholders certified in Malaysia,” he said.

Ashwin said another big issue with certification of smallholders is land titles which is something the RSPO cannot solve.

“We can engage but at the end of the day it is on the local and national governments to address land legality. The next step is for them to move towards RSPO. I wish all the governments will do much more locally,” he noted.

Ashwin pointed out government initiatives have a greater degree of outreach as opposed to what a voluntary scheme such as the RSPO could do as the government has bigger manpower and machinery, as well as agencies and institutions in place.

Meanwhile, smallholders from the district of Tongod in Sandakan, Sabah, told SunBiz on the sidelines of the 16th Annual RSPO Conference recently that obtaining legal land titles underNative Customary Rights (NCR) is a struggle they have to grapple with as ancestral land that has been occupied for generations has been gazetted as eco parks by the state government.

Johndrey Rambakon, who owns 10 hectares of plantation land in Tongod, said the community in his district have not received legal land titles. Plus, he said, there have been cost constraints in managing the plantations and to rent the necessary machinery to build roads to transport their products out.

When asked if the grouses have been brought to the attention of the authorities, he said it has been relayed to the local Member of Parliament but there is yet to be a resolution.

Another smallholding farmer from Pontian, Johor, who spoke to SunBiz on the condition of anonymity, noted that land titles is not an issue in the Peninsula, but smallholders here are bogged down by the issue of labour shortage especially when it comes to recruitment of foreign workers as plantations are highly dependent on manpower from Indonesia.

As such, it raises the question of whether certification is viable for independent smallholders, who are facing all sorts of issues.

Ashwin explained that the RSPO is working to bring down the cost of certification.

“We are also developing a simplified assurance mechanism that reduces the barriers and takes away dependence on third-party audits and peer control mechanism and internal audits but at one point a third party audit will be required. That will bring down the cost ,” he said.

The RSPO is working towards introducing the Smallholder Standard for independent smallholders which will be put out for a vote at its Annual General Assembly next year.

On another note, Ashwin dispelled concerns among smallholders that having their products certified may increase prices and in turn affect uptake.

He said RSPO is engaging with markets to create awareness on the value of certifications so that buyers will be able to digest and understand as well as incentivising and rewarding sellers accordingly when prices go up.