This morning we got up early to go to our next plantation visit. That oil palm is big in Riau, becomes easily clear when you drive through the landscape. Oil palm plantations, both by companies and smallholder farmers, or just in the back of a garden, are one of the dominant features along the road. However, that’s is not all. Rubber tree plantings, a field with banana trees every now and then and acacia tree plantations for the production of pulp and paper can all be seen from the road.
The plantation: a community
After a three hour ride, we arrived at Musim Mas’ Sorek plantation. The plantation area is not just a plantation, it is a village. Three thousand workers and their families go to work, school, medical clinic, supermarket and more on the estate. And then there is also a palm oil research centre where they try to select the best seeds to plant new oil palms, an oil mill with a new methane capturing installation and several ‘plasma’ schemed smallholders (small farmers that have a partnership with a plantation company) that live around the villages next to the plantation area. We visited them all.
Traceability and sustainability
Upon arrival we received a briefing on the Musim Mas plantation and their work on sustainability in particular. Like other oil palm growers in south east Asia, Musim Mas want to engage with its suppliers to create awareness on sustainability and improve their practices. Traceability is an important, first tool that can help identify the sources in your supply base and in which of these areas you have a leverage to make a change. For smallholders in particular, sustainability goes hand in hand with yield improvement.
We visited one of the smallholder unions that work together with Musim Mas. The company helps them with plantation management and transport of fresh fruit bunches already from 2002 onwards. It was also because of their partnership with Musim Mas that they became aware on the principles and guidelines of the RSPO.
That smallholder involvement and support is important became clear on our final session Friday morning. Together with IDH, The Sustainable Trade Initiative, we invited the SPKS smallholder union, Winrock foundation and Elang that focus on improving best practices for smallholders, especially on peatlands. Smallholders want to improve their practices, but they also depend on their current oil palms for their livelihoods. Often, the strategy for a better livelihood is clearing up more (peat)land to plant more. In this context it is difficult to implement sustainable practices, if we do not help them increase their productivity and yield first. Sustainability for smallholders, thus has to come with extension services for seedlings, management and quality improvement, if we want to make it work.
Support and research
We closed the morning with the launch of the ‘SALSA’ project, a smallholder project of the French Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil in partnership with the CIRAD research institute. The project aims to increase the knowledge on best management practices for smallholders. The French Alliance will jump on board on existing projects to help support and fund more research. A good example of how European stakeholders can support smallholder development in Indonesia. It reflects the main outcome of our trip: sending the signal that Europe cares about sustainable palm oil and is contributing to a more sustainable supply chain. It is exactly this, that we are all committed to.
Day 3 – Welcome in Indonesia
This morning we flew out of Malaysia for the second half of our field trip. Thank you again to our Malaysian partners for your hospitality and great experiences during the past 2 days.
Next destination is Pekanbaru in the Riau area of Sumatra, Indonesia. Riau is one of the main palm oil producing regions in Indonesia, planted during the first period of oilpalm expansion in the ‘80s and ‘90s of the last century. Riau is also an important region for smallholder farmers in palm oil: around 60% of the 1.4 million hectares of the palm oil area in Riau is cultivated by smallholders, making them a significant player in the regional palm oil industry.
Forest fires and haze
Unfortunately, Riau is also one of the regions that became infamous for its forest fires and haze that affected large parts of south east Asia last year. Palm oil is often blamed for these fires, but the reality proves to be more complicated. “Bad habits, such as burning to kill weeds and pest and to create a quick, fertile soil are occurring”, but also “conflicts between neighbours” are part of a complex set of factors that can ignite fires that, especially during dry periods, can spread all over. It are exactly these complications that we want to understand better to bring the informaton back to Europe.
After a warm welcome by Pak Togar and his local colleagues from the Indonesian Palm Oil Association GAPKI, we had our first meeting with representatives of both big and small palm oil producers in the region. The meeting was also attended by Indonesian government representatives e.g. Foreign Affairs, Agriculture and the Palm Oil Crop Estate Fund. Our new ‘sister alliance’ the Singapore alliance for sustainable palm oil, was also present.
Outreach and communication
During discussion, GAPKI or smallholder representatives clearly asked for support to make palm oil sustainable and viable for the long term. However, there were also questions onto what ‘do we (Europeans) mean with sustainability?, stressing that there is still a lot of work on outreach and communication to be done, especially towards smallholders.
On the bright side, smallholders are also actively enforcing and strengthening their capacities. The recently established smallholder union ‘Sawitkuk Masa Depanku’ (SAMADE) was created out of an online facebook forum. By using social media, they could get an answer on harvesting, quality and other best practices from their peers. At the moment, over 13.000 smallholders, with an average of 10-20 hectares each, are grouped all over Indonesia.
The local perspective
The best way to summarize today’s main outcome can be found in a detail. ‘Sawitkuk Masa Depanku’, the smallholder unions name, stands for “Palm Oil My Future”. To me this says it all. Palm oil is more than just a commodity or food ingredient. The perspective that we often take when we talk about palm oil in Europe. Being here makes you realize it is much more. It is a livelihood, a strategy to make a living, important for many Indonesians, especially here in Riau.
Day 2 – Meeting the Malaysian stakeholders
The second day of our field trip was about meeting and talking to the different stakeholders in the Malaysian debate on sustainable palm oil. In the morning we headed off to the office of the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC). MPOC promotes the interest of Malaysian palm oil all over the world. The delegates learned on the background of Malaysian agricultural industry and the importance of tree crops such as oil palm and rubber. At the moment, around 16% of the total land in Malaysia is used for to palm oil production (5,6 million hectares) and around 40% of this palm oil area is cultivated by smallholder farmers. The delegates also took the opportunity to share their views and input on how we can better align on communication and information on palm oil in Europe.
The next stop was the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) in Putrajaya. MPOB works on palm oil research ranging from improving the quality of seedlings, improve management practices and harvest techniques up to finding new applications and improving processing techniques. At the end of the meeting we were shown the basic harvesting techniques and could feel and smell the fresh oil palm fruits ourselves.
We closed the day with a very interactive session at the headquarters of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in Kuala Lumpur. The Malaysian WWF and Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) were also invited to elaborate on their work and views on sustainable palm oil. The delegates were updated with the basics and updates of the RSPO, that was especially interesting for some of us that have only recently start working on sustainable palm oil. From our side, we were able to provide first hand experiences of the situation in Europe and discussed how to better answer and engage in these debates.
The presence of WWF and MNS gave us the opportunity to have a technical Q&A on deforestation in Malaysia. The NGOs stressed that palm oil production is not the only cause for deforestation. Oil palm often follows logging and degraded areas before it is planted. On peninsular Malaysia, oil palm is often planted on former rubber plantations. We learned that 50% of Malaysia is classified by the government as ‘Totally Protected Areas (TPA)’ which are totally protected and ‘Forest Reserves’ that allows sustainably managed logging. Malaysian total forest cover is around 62% at the moment. The NGOs also noted that not only deforestation is an issue, but also reducing negative impacts such as water pollution and GHG emissions and social rights.
Tomorrow we fly out of Malaysia and head for Pekanbaru in Riau, Sumatra, to continue the second part of our field trip. Looking forward!
Day 1 – Plantation visit and Ambassadors meeting
Europe’s national initiatives for sustainable palm oil are in the land of palm oil. This week we will visit and meet palm oil producers, organisations, governments, smallholders and civil society from Malaysia and Indonesia to learn, share and discuss on the production of sustainable palm oil.
The visit kicked off with an ‘in depth class’ on palm oil production and upstream processing. Sime Darby opened up its palm oil plantation, oil mill and kernel crush at Carey Island. Our delegation was joined by the Dutch, Swedish and Belgian ambassadors to Malaysia, that used this opportunity to improve their knowledge of palm oil production as well.
For many, it was the first time to see and experience the first steps in the palm oil supply chain. Participants experienced the harvesting process, were shown the difference between a ripe and unripe fruitbunch and got familiar with some key aspects of plantation management. We had a look at the canal system that retains the fresh water level in the plantation, learned how legume cover crops feed back nitrogen into the soil and how barn owls are an environmentally friendly alternative to control rat populations at the plantation. Knowing “how it works in the field” is crucial to tell a better, correct and trustworthy story back home. The delegation continued to see the palm oil mill and palm kernel crush facilities that showed how the multiple steps that have to be taken to separate the oil from the harvested fresh fruit bunch.
It is the first time a joined European delegation, representing all companies and industry associations committed to sustainable palm oil, visits the two main palm oil producing countries. What brings us all together, is a clear and united ambition to work and contribute to a more sustainable palm oil supply chain. This was shared and appreciated during the reception at the Dutch embassies residence in Kuala Lumpur later that evening. Participants, including other ambassadors and representatives of key Malaysian palm oil companies and organisations, were able to share their stories and views on sustainable palm oil with the European delegation.
Tomorrow we will visit the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, learn on the latest developments on palm oil research at the Malaysian Palm Oil Board and visit the headquarters of the RSPO in Kuala Lumpur.
Blog: Thijs Pasmans
Pictures: Thijs Pasmans, Margot Logman and Laure d’Astorg
The EPOA field trip to Malaysia and Indonesia is made possible by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) in Malaysia and the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAPKI) in Indonesia. The European delegates are:
Laure d’Astorg, secretary general French Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil
Laure Gregoire, spokesperson French Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil
Maike Moellers, secretary general German Forum for Sustainable Palm Oil
Benita Heinze, secretary German Forum for Sustainable Palm Oil
Nathalie Lecocq, Director General The EU Vegetable Oil and Proteinmeal Industry (FEDIOL)
Agnieszka Slodowa, secretary Polish Food and Drink federation
Jelmen Haaze, EU Policy manager European Sustainable Palm Oil Advocacy Group (ESPOAG) and International Margarine Association for the Countries of Europe (IMACE)
Vincent van den Berk, Policy coordinator Dutch ministry of Economic Affairs
Francesca Ronca, Secretary General Italian Union for Sustainable Palm Oil
Margot Logman, program manager European Palm Oil Alliance (EPOA)
Thijs Pasmans, secretary Dutch Alliance for Sustainable Palm Oil, MVO – the Netherlands Oils and Fats Industry and European Palm Oil Alliance (EPOA)