The RSPO has emerged as the leading sustainability certification system to tackle the socio-environmental issues associated with the oil palm industry.
The body has developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO).
The RSPO principles and criteria (P&C) cover a range of topics, from the prevention of deforestation to the protection of human rights and improvements to smallholder livelihoods.
However, according to the authors of a new study published in Nature, the effectiveness of RSPO in achieving its socio-economic objectives ‘remains uncertain’.
“Despite 15 years of promoting more-sustainable production practices, the effectiveness of RSPO certification in delivering social and environmental benefits to local communities in producing areas remains uncertain. Mixed impacts of certification have been reported by several studies on the basis of counterfactual evidence comparing the performance of certified and similar non-certified concessions.”
In order to assess whether RSPO certification has a positive impact on poverty and village welfare, the researchers applied ‘counterfactual analysis’ to ‘multidimensional government poverty data’.
“We compare poverty across 36,311 villages between 2000 and 2018, tracking changes from before oil palm plantations were first established to several years after plantations were certified,” the authors of the report explained.
So, does certification – and the sustainable palm price premium it carries – help reduce poverty in these communities?
The researchers' findings suggested that the answer depends on a number of variables, most notably whether the local economy was market-based or subsistence.
“Certification was associated with reduced poverty in villages with primarily market-based livelihoods, but not in those in which subsistence livelihoods were dominant before switching to oil palm,” they noted.
“We highlight the importance of baseline village livelihood systems in shaping local impacts of agricultural certification and assert that oil palm certification in certain village contexts may require additional resources to ensure socioeconomic objectives are realized.”
RSPO’s ‘continuous improvement’ approach
The research findings were welcomed by RSPO’s Dan Strechay, Global Outreach & Engagement Director.
“The organisation and our membership consistently works to improve the livelihoods of all communities whether they are market- or subsistence-based, and we are committed to continuously engaging with them to learn what more needs to be done as we evaluate the research,” he told FoodNavigator.
“We acknowledge the need for continuous improvement of RSPO’s strategies and interventions, as it relates to the implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for communities affected by the palm oil sector. This is an ongoing priority as we work to foster an inclusive standard and one that supports the livelihoods of all communities.”
RSPO’s P&C’s are updated every five years. A new standard, with measures focused on smallholder inclusion such as a ‘stepped’ approach to certification and increased smallholder support, was adopted in 2018. This means that the period the study covered didn’t reflect the evolution of the criteria, Strechay pointed out.
“It is encouraging to see the positive impact certification can have on communities and we will look to see how we maximise that impact in the future. This is particularly true if we would anticipate better outcomes under the 2018 Principles and Criteria, as this study would have been focused more on the 2013 version of the standard.
“Furthermore, the adoption of the RSPO Independent Smallholder Standard last year has been guided by the need to strike a balance between promoting greater inclusion of smallholders and ensuring that core sustainability requirements are upheld, thus, it directly addresses the needs and challenges of independent smallholders for inclusion in the RSPO system.”