Despite Thailand being the third largest producer of palm oil in the world today, the industry is driven by smallholders who manage over 75% of Thailand’s oil palm plantations, amounting to over one million hectares of land in southern Thailand. Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Thai smallholders have managed to reach record highs in domestic palm oil output in 2020.
On the ground, Thai smallholders have been reaping the benefits of RSPO certification in terms of increased profit, alternative sources of income, lower costs, and high productivity yields. Thai smallholders are an example of how economic prosperity goes hand in hand with sustainable farming management and environmentally sound approaches that help to overcome persistent plantation issues.
Sustainable group management
In Thailand’s Krabi province, the Nueaklong-Khao Phanom Community Enterprise, one of the first smallholder groups in Thailand certified by RSPO, has been recognised as a role model for achieving sustainable group management.
“A key success factor in group management is the Manager Committee system,” said enterprise Chairman Surasit Pisetslip, who set up a group management structure that provides members with a thorough understanding of sustainable practices.
Patcharin Somduang, who serves on the Environmental Committee of Nueaklong-Khao, said that prior to RSPO certification, “farmers neither understood nor expressed interest in selling credits. They did not believe they could simply sell a piece of paper. But now our enterprise has been able to establish that achieving the RSPO Standard enables oil palm farmers to enjoy the many benefits of sustainable palm oil production.”
Somyos Naksawasdi, a young farmer and member of Nueaklong-Khao Phanom, shared that at first, he started growing oil palm without any comprehensive knowledge. After various training sessions, he was able to plan cultivation plots properly and analyse soil conditions suitable to oil palm. Moreover, he kept complete farm records on fertiliser use, labour costs, and palm trading factors to determine annual production costs. Today, he enjoys sustainable and high-quality productivity, with increasing yield year on year.
“Apart from earning income from credit sales to cover expenditures and guiding the group toward self-reliance, members earn dividends and added premiums for keeping farm records,” added Pisetslip. “They save on fertiliser costs and can be supported in other farm occupations such as raising livestock or growing other crops to augment their earnings.”
Adopting integrated pest management
In Trang Province, the Learning Center on Oil Palm Effectiveness Enhancement of Theppitak Palm Community Enterprise Group was established as a knowledge sharing centre on sustainable oil palm management. Adopting integrated pest management and knowledge sharing on sustainable practices have been pivotal for the group’s development.
“We plant coral vine trees to help control insects and use pheromones to trap rhinoceros beetles in accordance with integrated pest management practice, one of the principles of RSPO’s Standard”, said Kasem Klueameephol, owner of the Learning Center. “Support from RSPO and government agencies has assisted farmers like myself to save on costs. After implementing sustainable farming practices, we reduced our costs by approximately 30-40%.”
What sets the Theppitak Community Enterprise Group apart is the application of marketing principles from smallholders upstream to entities midstream and downstream, such as crushing mills and product consumers.
Enterprise Manager Weerayut Wirojtwannakul believes the best way to manage sustainability is to produce physical and tangible products from palm oil crushing mills and refinery plants. “These are delivered to the end-users who produce snacks or consumable products. Ingredients used in such consumables can be traced back to the physical products made by the group’s mills and refineries, and this cycle creates true sustainability for the group.”
Over at Chumphon Province, amidst 32 million square meters of oil palm plantation land sits the CPI Learning Centre of the Chumphon Palm Oil Industry Public Company Limited, an RSPO certified oil palm plantation. This centre is a repository of research on the development of various palm varieties, palm nurseries and the proper application of fertilisers based on the ages of palm tree varieties.
In accordance with the RSPO Standard, the farm has applied environmentally friendly practices such as no chemical usage, no deforestation, and no destruction of natural water sources.
“We never stop researching ways to improve our environmentally friendly practices,” said Junhui Saelao, Senior Farm Manager. “We created a model project of using owls to kill rats in oil palm plantations without the need for herbicides. This will help lower production and chemical costs, generating savings of up to a million baht (USD30580) per year.”
Along with cost savings, Saelao says RSPO certification has increased income. “We gained income we had not expected by keeping farm records. This helps us to analyse yield per rai alongside the proper amount of fertiliser application for palm trees, which decreases fertiliser costs.
In Surat Thani Province, the Community Enterprise Network of Sustainable Palm Oil Smallholders have seen yearly yield growth following RSPO training.
Soros Dejmanee, Vice Chairman of the enterprise said, “Having been trained in the RSPO Standard, we have consistently had high yields of seven tons of product per rai each year. These benefits are a result of our adjusted farming approaches which provide proper, continuous care.”
Since becoming RSPO members, the smallholder network has attended various training sessions and knowledge-sharing activities on enhancing the efficiency of farm management.“ Spreading palm fronds on the ground has helped add organic matter and moisture in the soil, prevent erosion, and add nutrients to palm trees, further enhancing the efficiency of fertiliser application,” shared Dejmanee. “We recognise that increased productivity, larger profits, higher income, and better grower’s health can all be attained without paying additional costs.”