Since September 2021, RSPO has been providing financial assistance to Independent Smallholders whose livelihoods have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, including Independent Smallholder groups in Indonesia and Thailand. Recently, oil palm farmers of the Wild Asia Group Scheme (WAGS) in Eastern Sabah, Malaysia, have also been able to utilise RSPO financial aid to upgrade their farming equipment and purchase food, household and kitchen supplies.
During the pandemic, Wild Asia smallholders in Sabah, Perak and Johor faced a number of challenges, including transporting their crops to mills or dealers because of movement restriction orders in place. Lockdown limitations also kept the labour workforce from managing the farms, and caused delays in the legalisation process of foreign workers. In some mills where COVID cases were identified, operations had to cease entirely and hence could not accept crops, resulting in a sizable loss of income.
RSPO’s financial assistance included waived membership fees for active Independent Smallholder Groups with Ordinary membership, which was awarded to all Independent Smallholder Group members and new Independent Smallholder Group members joining within the one year fee waiver period. A hardship allowance of 1.2 million Malaysian Ringgit was allocated to the RSPO Smallholder Support Fund as an additional mechanism of support for smallholders.
RSPO Chief Executive Officer Joseph D’Cruz, who met some of the Wild Asia smallholders in Eastern Sabah, said, “We know that the pandemic had a significant impact on the livelihoods of Independent Smallholders, which is why we are pleased to be able to provide the Wild Asia Group Scheme smallholders with financial assistance towards their recovery and rebuilding.”
Sharyn Shufiyan, Wild Asia General Manager for Programmes, shared, “We consulted representatives of our smallholder groups and they came up with ideas on how to use the funds, and found that the best way was to purchase farm tools and equipment for Sabah, and issue a cash disbursement for Johor and Perak. We distributed cash equally for them to purchase household items or farm tools.”
WAGS Regenerative Agriculture
Before the COVID pandemic hit, the Wild Asia smallholders group had been reaping the benefits of RSPO certification, including additional income from the sale of RSPO Credits and the uptake of physical volumes by certified mills, learning best management practices and gaining access to the global palm oil market.
“The smallholders also enjoyed better relationships with the mills and dealers to whom they are sending their crops, and had the opportunity to be involved in our other projects like the WAGS BIO programme, whereby regenerative agriculture practices are shared and taught to them,” added Sharyn Shufiyan.
The WAGS BIO programme incorporates a systematic approach towards supporting agricultural producers to adopt chemical-free agriculture and regenerative practices. Overall, the system improves soil conditions, leading to healthier palms that are pest and disease resistant and produce higher yields of fresh fruit bunches.
WAGS BIO farmers commit to farming practices that are free from agro-chemicals and non-organic fertilisers, and adopt sustainable farming methods.
Smallholder Support Post-Pandemic
Even as restrictions worldwide are slowly being eased post-COVID, Independent Smallholders require continued support and guidance to maintain RSPO certification.
“A fundamental part of RSPO’s objectives is ensuring that smallholders are included in sustainable solutions leading to higher productivity yields and improved livelihoods, and are able to accomplish RSPO certification that unlocks access to global markets,” added D’Cruz. “We believe that all players of the palm oil supply chain must commit to efforts to increase smallholder inclusion and access to sustainable supply chains.”
Reza Azmi, Executive Director of Wild Asia added, “Our work over the last 10 years has been made possible because of a wide range of partners – from the consumer goods companies, to the palm oil processors and dealers themselves. We are finding that beyond certification support, being able to sustain our presence has allowed us to innovate our programmes, reach out to new technical or other partners, and find new ways to enhance smallholder resilience. Creating ways to reduce farm costs, improving or building new income streams and teaching new skills that can be used to enhance home gardens have been some of the new methods we have had to learn."