Protecting forests, wildlife habitats, and areas of biodiversity remains one of RSPO’s top priorities. However, besides preserving the planet, we believe growing the economy to meet social needs is equally important. As a leading standard in the production of sustainable palm oil, RSPO has been striving to ensure that oil palm development is done sustainably, with a focus on balancing the needs and benefits of the local communities with the conservation of forests.

The 2018 RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&C), a set of stringent standards for sustainable palm oil production, includes new requirements to ensure the effective contribution by RSPO members in halting deforestation. This goal can be achieved by incorporating the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA) toolkit in the revised standard to identify High Carbon Stock (HCS) areas within any new developments of oil palm by RSPO members.

The toolkit, integrated with the High Conservation Value (HCV) approach, provides a structured and clear methodology for RSPO members to identify HCV/HCS areas prior to any new developments or plans for conservation, management and monitoring post-development, to ensure that the areas are maintained and/or enhanced. According to RSPO Greenhouse Gas Manager, Amir Afham, “The adoption of the HCV approach and the HCSA toolkit for identification of HCV/HCS forests is the key to ensuring that further damage to valuable natural landscapes can be avoided.”

However, one of the concerns was the application of the HCSA toolkit in countries with high percentages of forest cover, known as High Forest Cover Countries (HFCCs). It refers to countries that have more than 60% forest cover, and less than 1% oil palm cover; a deforestation trajectory that is historically low but is increasing in recent years; and a known frontier for oil palm, or where major areas have been allocated for oil palm development. Based on this definition, seven countries in the world have been identified as HFCCs, with four of them located in Africa – Gabon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, and Liberia

Yet, HFCCs also urgently require economic opportunities that enable communities to choose their own development path, while providing socio-economic benefits and safeguards. So, how can a balance between conservation and economic development be achieved? 

The African Context 
Oil palm is indigenous to West and Central Africa, and has been processed and used for various purposes for centuries. The establishment of industrial plantations and processing facilities by the governments from the late 1960s expanded its production. From the late 1980s, the governments began divesting their interests in these state-owned enterprises to private owners. However, the governments still wield significant influence in the palm oil sector, thus they are important in efforts to steer the sector onto the path of sustainability. 

Demonstrating a strong environmental policy, the Gabonese government, has recently committed to the production of sustainable palm oil in the country using best practices or international standards. In June 2019, they officially adopted the RSPO P&C as the National Standard, making it the first and only country, to date, to have done that. On 3 September 2020, the RSPO Board of Governors endorsed the new Gabon National Interpretation (NI), to adapt the indicators of the RSPO P&C to the national context, following the P&C update in 2018.

The Chair of the RSPO Gabon National Interpretation Working Group (NIWG), Eugene Ndong Ndoutoume (Business and Biodiversity Programme Coordinator, WWF Gabon) explains that the NI is necessary in order to have an interpretation that complies with the RSPO P&C 2018 generic standard, as certified plantations will be subject to audits using this. In addition, it is also to support the arguments of certain stakeholders who advocate for the consideration of the local context in the No Deforestation requirements.

“It should also be noted that Gabon made the voluntary and proactive choice to develop industrial oil palm plantations according to the existing international good practice – the RSPO. To date, all the plantations are either RSPO certified or in the process of becoming certified” adds Ndoutoume. 

Gabon, along with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of the Congo constitute significant portions of the Congo Basin, which is extremely important in terms of biodiversity and carbon sequestration. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the range of benefits provided by the Congo Basin forests extends well beyond the African continent. At 500 million acres, the Congo Basin stands as the world's second-largest tropical forest, and is home to some of the most spectacular and endangered wildlife in Africa. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the world is very concerned about the preservation of forests in HFCCs, watching closely for uncontrolled and unsustainable development of palm oil.

To respond to these circumstances, a No Deforestation Joint Steering Group (NDJSG) was formed, consisting of RSPO members and the High Carbon Stock Approach (HCSA) Steering Group. Their main task is to develop the procedures for oil palm development in HFCCs.

Developing oil palm in HFCCs
Striking a balance between economic development, social needs and conservation has been an ongoing discussion among stakeholders in many industries, including palm oil. According to RSPO Technical Manager in Africa, Elikplim Dziwornu Agbitor, “About 86% of Gabon is covered by forests, with over 60% of these being primary forests. For several decades, the economy has been relying largely on petroleum. In recent years however, the country has been looking towards agricultural development as a socio-economic safety net, especially with the fluctuations in petroleum prices. This points to the need to balance forest conservation with the socio-economic development needs and aspirations of HFCCs, nearly all of which could be classified as underdeveloped.”

“Therefore, it is crucial that the procedure for oil palm development in HFCCs, whilst aimed at conserving forests, does not unfairly limit the opportunities for socio-economic development in the country,” Agbitor adds.   

Lead Facilitator of the RSPO Gabon NIWG, Bilge Daldeniz (Associate Director, Proforest), comments that it is vital to bring together all stakeholders and the government to interpret the RSPO’s No Deforestation requirements for HFCCs. It is critical to work with the governments in HFCCs to find a solution that will allow for economic diversification, sustainable agricultural development, creation of livelihoods, and preservation of the country’s forests – all at the same time.

“A balanced approach suitable for HFCCs context would result in continued support of RSPO certification and the protection of forests overall, as economic opportunities would be created that would direct pressures away from the forests,” says Daldeniz.

RSPO’s stand on oil palm expansion within existing producing countries is – to limit development only to non-HCV/non-HCS areas, with a focus on conservation and/or enhancement of any HCV/HCS areas identified within the developed area. Yet, Amir acknowledges that implementing the toolkit “as it is” will cause an imbalance between conservation, social needs of communities, and economic development in high forest cover countries. In fact, he says that halting development will severely impact the opportunities for communities to improve their livelihoods.

RSPO Standard Development Director, Julia Majail, clarifies that the procedural notes for Indicator 7.12.3 of the RSPO P&C has stated clearly that there should be demonstrable benefits to the local community; clear recognition of legal and customary lands based on participatory land use planning; and development should be proportional to the needs of the local community, with a balance between conservation and development.

The RSPO Secretariat recognises the complexity it faces in implementing its standards in HFCCs, and that it will require the development of a procedure to ensure that oil palm development by local communities and indigenous people, and relationships with RSPO members, provides these communities with economic benefits while avoiding large-scale uncontrolled development of HCS forests and any clearance of HCV areas.

Julia concludes that it is important that in-country experts and stakeholders are consulted and included in the discussions of the development of this procedure to ensure that the final product is relevant and implementable in HFCCs. This also increases buy-in and clarity for local stakeholders as they are consulted earlier in the process.

With an urgent need to restore this balance in HFCCs, and as the leading standard in the production of sustainable palm oil, RSPO is focused on ensuring that any interest in oil palm development within these countries is done sustainably, balancing the needs of the local communities and forest conservation.

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