Can Ecuador do palm oil right? Jurisdictional RSPO commitment stirs hope (Mongabay)

QUITO, ECUADOR –  Ecuador’s oil palm industry has taken what many see as another step forward by committing to a jurisdictional RSPO system as a way to transform the entire sector by making it cleaner and more sustainable. But some wonder if a commitment to RSPO is enough, considering the industry’s questionable reputation in some parts of the country and its encroachment on new areas in the Amazon rainforest.

Oil palm is considered an important crop worldwide, as its fruit produces palm oil, one of the most ubiquitous oils on the market. It’s used in everything from margarine, ice cream, makeup, certain lubricants and fabrics, and is a popular biodiesel. At the same time, it has drawn international ire for its association with mass deforestation, land grabs and labor abuses on large plantations.

This has also been true in some parts of Ecuador, where the industry has been accused of displacing communities and contributing to the destruction of rainforests.

In attempts to reign in these industry practices, Ecuador’s Ministry of Agriculture reactivated its Jurisdictional RSPO Certification plan in March 2018. The RSPO, which stands for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, is the world’s leading palm oil certification body. It consists of a set of environmental and social criteria that aim to make oil palm plantations more sustainable, such as committing to zero deforestation in primary forest regions, reducing chemical inputslike pesticides and fertilizers, making industry practices more transparent, and ensuring that international labor laws are abided by.

Ecuador’s jurisdictional plan aims to certify entire provinces rather than focus certification efforts on individual companies and plantations, which has tended to be the norm in other parts of the world. The motivation behind a jurisdictional approach is that it would better allow regional governments to improve the welfare of small farmers who grow oil palm while tamping down environmental destruction and increasing the efficiency of palm oil fruit-to-product supply chains.

Ecuador’s plan has been in the making for years but was stalled in 2017 after the presidential election brought about changes to the government.

As part of the reactivation plan, Minister of Agriculture Ruben Flores also signed into creation the Inter-Institutional Committee for the Monitoring of Sustainable Palm (CISPS) – a body that brings together all actors in the oil palm sector, including the private and public spheres as well as civil society, with the aim of creating and implementing sustainable growing models.

Various actors will participate in this group, such as key industry players like the National Association of Palm Oil Growers (ANCUPA) and the Foundation of Promotion of Oil Palm Exports (FEDAPAL), the Ministries of Agriculture and the Environment, environmental organizations like World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Conservation International, and local governments and farming cooperatives. As the group is only a few months old, they have yet to lay out details about their strategies.

Ecuador is one of the first countries to develop jurisdictional RSPO certification approaches, and is being praised worldwide. The United Nations REDD program, which aims to curtail greenhouse gas emissions by reducing deforestation, has commended the creation of CISPS and “the motivation for the palm oil sector to rebrand, rethink, and reinvent itself.”

“I think all countries are going a bit crazy in looking at what Ecuador is doing,” said Angela Alvarez, an oil palm specialist with the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.

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