The recent widespread flooding from heavy rainfall which hit the provinces of South and East Kalimantan have caused concern among many, with some environmentalists attributing the disaster to the expansion of oil palm plantations.
What is the actual root of the problem? Is it possible for oil palm growers to participate in environmental conservation to reduce potential flood risks? If so, how?
While acknowledging the devastating consequences of the flooding disaster on communities in the two provinces, as well as other areas across Indonesia, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) says that large-scale land use conversion is one factor that contributes to increasing severity of floods.
“This may include deforestation, destruction of floodplains, and construction of flood dams and drainage channels,” says Tiur Rumondang, RSPO Assurance Director.
Research by the World Resource Institute (WRI) Indonesia has found that the factors most commonly responsible for flooding in Indonesia are tree cover loss, excessive rainfall and topographical conditions.
A separate report by the emergency response team of the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (LAPAN) indicates excessive rainfall as the major cause of flooding disasters. It also adds that land use conversion in the past decade could be a contributing factor, noting a decline in primary and secondary forests, rice fields and shrub groves in 2010-2020.
“Palm oil produced in an unsustainable way can lead to the widespread destruction of tropical forests,” Tiur asserts, adding that excessive rainfall can affect oil palm production.
“Oil palm trees are capable of withstanding temporary flooding, but waterlogged conditions can damage plantations,” she says.
Tiur explains that the RSPO’s sustainability principles, which all members must adhere to in operating their oil palm plantations, can protect the environment and can also contribute to reducing flood risk.
As enshrined in the 2018 RSPO Principles and Criteria (P&C), multistakeholder non-profit emphasises the importance of “Ecosystem Preservation as a Pillar to establish Co-existence between Palm Oil and Environment”.
The preservation of ecosystems and their essential services is a core tenet of the RSPO P&C 2018 standards, says Tiur.
“These are organised into three impact areas, Prosperity, People, Planet, each with their own set of principles.
“Under Planet, Principle 7 sets out the commitment to protect, conserve and enhance ecosystems and the environment. This means our members are responsible for protecting the environment, conserving biodiversity and ensuring the sustainable management of natural resources,” she explains.
She further elaborates: “It includes criteria around preventing the degradation of soil, using topographic information to guide the planning of drainage and irrigation systems, and ensuring that land clearing does not cause deforestation. All of which are important in mitigating flood risk.”
Since the first P&C was adopted in November 2007, the standards have been reviewed every five years and the latest iteration was adopted in 2018.
Tiur says that RSPO can help to reduce flood risk by addressing the first factor: tree cover loss.
“Under the RSPO P&C 2018, all our members [certified or not] have committed to a total ban on deforestation,” she says. “This prohibits the conversion of tropical rainforests for oil palm plantations and ensures that land clearing doesn’t cause deforestation. This is why we take our responsibility to monitor members’ commitment to the P&C 2018 very seriously.”
The RSPO has worked continuously over the past 10 years to develop a set of standards that ensure the sustainable production of palm oil, she underlines.
According to Tiur, the P&C 2018 includes a total ban on deforestation and requires oil palm growers to protect and conserve High Conservation Value (HCV) areas, High Carbon Stock (HCS) forests and rare, threatened or endangered (RTE) species.
“To ensure the responsible development of new land for oil palm cultivation, we introduced the New Planting Procedure in 2009. This framework was further updated in 2015 to include a set of assessments and verification activities to be conducted by growers and certification bodies before any new oil palm development commences.
“These are designed to ensure that oil palm plantings do not negatively affect primary forests, HCV areas, HCS areas, fragile and marginal soil, or people’s land,” she says.
Strict verification process
Meanwhile, RSPO Indonesia Assurance Manager, Djaka Riksanto explains that palm oil producers members of the RSPO are certified through a strict verification process by accredited certification bodies. Further, he says that “this certification can be withdrawn at any time in case of infringement of the rules and standards”.
According to Djaka, grower members are assessed annually for continued compliance.
“To ensure the credibility of the sustainability claim at the end of the supply chain, all organisations that take legal ownership and physically handle RSPO-certified sustainable palm oil products need to be supply chain certified,” he says.
“For our smallholder members, we have designed the RSPO Independent Smallholder Standard to support [them] towards certification. This seeks to increase the inclusion of smallholders into the RSPO system through a mechanism which takes into consideration the diversity in challenges and situations faced by smallholders,” Djaka adds.
According to Tiur, the RSPO will continue to address the environmental challenges associated with unsustainable palm oil production that require urgent collective action, like flooding.
“Every stakeholder in the palm oil supply chain – from growers to investors to manufacturers to consumers – has a shared responsibility to ensure that palm oil production does not harm our environment or local communities,” she says. “In this respect, RSPO continues to strengthen its commitment to transparency and accountability.”
Djaka adds that since 2013, all RSPO grower members, certified or not, have been required to submit concession maps. However, to respect the decision by the Government of Indonesia that considers such information as Government own legal documents and not to make it public by foreign organisation such as RSPO, we exclude this information from our map platform GeoRSPO. The Government of Indonesia also stated that they are in a process to create a data protocol to allow future transparency and we are still waiting for such further actions.