By Ms Marieke Leegwater & Dr Petra Meekers

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) formed the Smallholders Working Group in 2011 with a singular, but massively important mandate: to drive the implementation of sustainable practices among the world’s small, privately operated oil palm plantations.

The Smallholders Working Group is a strategic gathering of oil palm growers, smallholder groups, retailers, manufacturers, processors and traders working alongside environmental and social NGOs and processors and traders. It aims to integrate smallholders as a key part of the supply chain while enhancing their livelihoods, and as an extension of that, to enable them to play their part in the conservation of their respective places.

More than 2.2 million smallholders are involved in the global oil palm sector, and together smallholders represent a significant portion of global production. But most  lack  the funds needed to invest in methods that would  increase their yields or improve access to international markets. The smallholders sector remains under-capitalized and severely fragmented while efforts to establish a systemic and lasting transformation of the sector is only in its infancy.

But that doesn’t mean change isn’t happening. We are beginning to see signs of change in the smallholders sector thanks to several  initiatives launched by the RSPO and the Smallholders Working Group; the most important being the RSPO Smallholders Support Fund.

The Smallholders Working Group is working on a number of innovative initiatives that help smallholders capitalize on the popularity of sustainable approaches in the oil palm sector. By adopting sustainable methods in the cultivation of oil palm, smallholders can be integrated as a key part of the global supply chain — a move that would not only draft oil palm growers as valuable allies in the conservation effort, but would also greatly improve their livelihoods by opening access to premium Western markets.

One can’t over-emphasise the importance the private sector plays in driving the adoption of sustainable practices among smallholders. There is a high interest in sustainably harvested oil palm among international buyers, thanks in no small part, to consumers’ preference for environmentally sound commodities and a rising demand for agricultural goods as the global population continues to grow.

We must now continue to push demand for sustainable oil palm sourced from smallholder-owned plantations. And the investment community needs to play an active role by supporting efforts to get smallholders to embrace sustainable practices that will improve growers’ welfare.

The only way to achieve our goal is through broad collaboration among all levels of the oil palm industry. Players in both the private and public sector, along with governments and investors, all have important roles to play in the fight to establish the widespread use of sustainable practices. We need everyone to play a part in order to ensure that the industry is heading in the right direction. We believe the momentum already there, and with perseverance, we shall continue our efforts.

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