• Home
  • Guiding principles for sustainable bamboo forest management planning: Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State (BGRS)

Guiding principles for sustainable bamboo forest management planning: Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State (BGRS)

Posted by


Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State (BGRS) is the region of Ethiopia with the greatest bamboo forest cover. The resource has, however, encountered heavy degradation in recent years due to fires for farming and for hunting, mass flowering, unsustainable harvest, and land conversion. Bamboo, if harvested correctly, can become a valuable resource and a source of income for the rural population of BGRS. In order to do so, a management plan is needed at the regional level to provide guidance for future planning at the district level. This document, based on a desk study, field survey, direct observation, and a participatory mapping workshop, intends to provide this guidance for a sustainable bamboo forest management plan. It also gives recommendations on how to sustainably harvest bamboo, how to develop nurseries for future bamboo plantations, how to link bamboo forests with the private sector and the market, and the role bamboo could play in degraded land restoration.

  • Home
  • Making the grade: Challenges and prospects for sustainable smallholder oil palm in Indonesia

Making the grade: Challenges and prospects for sustainable smallholder oil palm in Indonesia

Posted by


“Making the Grade” looks at challenges and prospects for sustainable smallholder oil palm in Indonesia.

This video was first published by CIFOR.

  • Home
  • Scientists urge revision of sustainable forest product certification indicators

Scientists urge revision of sustainable forest product certification indicators

Posted by


An internationally recognized product labelling system designed to assure consumers that they are buying sustainably-sourced forest products is falling short of some of its intended objectives, according to new research.

Since 1994, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification framework of agreed indicators has encouraged companies to adhere to sustainable forest management practices, which are also aimed at simultaneously increasing financial profitability.

Companies follow guidelines to extract timber responsibly, reduce impact on forest ecosystems and help reduce land and soil degradation. FSC certification, one of the most widely accepted standards aimed at assessing long term sustainable forest management worldwide, is also designed to protect the rights of workers and indigenous people.

However, a study undertaken in Brazil by scientists with the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), published in the journal of Forest Policy and Economics determined that a lack of transparency and unclear reporting indicators restrict the reliability of the program.

“We found that in Brazil, FSC auditors and certification bodies don’t succeed in guaranteeing  companies are in full conformity  with labor and environmental requirements due to a lack of clarity on how standards are applied and conformity assessments administered,” said Marie-Gabrielle Piketty, who undertook the project as a researcher with the French Agricultural Centre for International Development (CIRAD). “Notably, there are really important and trustworthy agents in the certification system — everything relies on them, but we need to better understand the exact processes at stake.”

The country’s 6.2 million hectares of certified forests make up a significant amount of certified land area worldwide, more than in any other tropical country. Forest plantations make up three quarters of Brazil’s certified area, while the Brazilian Amazon includes 1.5 million hectares of certified natural forests.

FSC certification in Brazil is based on 10 principles, 55 criteria and an average of 200 indicators, which must be verified by external auditors, who report conformity and non-conformity, request corrective actions and determine whether to grant or revoke certification.

Read also: Can REDD+ help Brazil roll back rising deforestation rates?

Cattle farming is a key driver of deforestation in Brazil. Photo by Kate Evans/CIFOR

Piketty conducted the research with Isabel Garcia Drigo, who formerly worked with Nexus Socioambiental Ltda., a company which helps perform audits. She now works for the Institute of Forest and Agriculture Management and Certification (IMAFLORA). Together they reviewed public documents, conducted interviews, and undertook an analysis of indicators and “non-conformance” in audit reports.

“With FSC, we imagine a perfect system has been put in place, but it’s not perfect because it’s very, very difficult to comply with the standards,” Garcia Drigo said. “Being certified by FSC doesn’t mean you have perfect forest management — forests and forest management can be certified even with failures or imperfections.”

The goal of the researchers was to determine how auditors shape implementation and the amount of wiggle room that exists to interpret standards subjectively rather than objectively.

Some indicators are not open to interpretation, but others are, which means that the specific knowledge or judgement of an individual auditor can affect whether a company is certified or not. Some of the objective indicators are more difficult to check through auditing because they are too broad.

For example, one indicator includes informing workers and surrounding communities about the importance of forest management activities and their environmental implications. However, the statement does not define which information or methods of communication are essential and acceptable, Piketty and Garcia Drigo said.

Auditors can classify non-conformance as either a major or minor infraction, a major infraction can result in the suspension of certification but an act of minor non-conformance does not result in certification being revoked. They must be solved within a maximum period of a year.

However, Piketty and Garcia Drigo demonstrated that companies can be certified despite recurrent minor non-conformance. They recommend that FSC undertake a systematic review to identify areas where auditors have excessive freedom to interpret “conformance.” A limit should be set for allowable minor non-conformance concerns, they said.

Read also: Decoding deforestation in Brazil and Bolivia

Although there is a rule to label them as major non-conformance if they are repeated, in cases where indicators are too broad or too difficult to comply with – for example, if they encompass multiple aspects or are dependent on three-part actions – auditors have room to allow the recurrence.

However, this potential demonstrates a permanent failure of the forest management system, and FSC needs to review such indicators by improving them or establishing a limit on time to meet full compliance requirements.

Another challenge is that the public FSC certification database only shows recent certification reports and non-conformance assessments. Conformance assessments are not published.

“We need to know how auditors assess that a company really does follow all the rules, Piketty said. “If we don’t have access, we just don’t know, we just have to trust and accept. Consumers of certified products need assurance that they have been made from responsible sources and are verified properly to meet appropriate socio-environmental standards.”

FSC recognizes the potential fluidity inherent in its auditing practices. In 2016, the organization conducted a review of life cycle assessment practices, which are often used to support sustainability assessment or rating systems. The review determined that although the life-cycle perspective is important for addressing the environmental impact of production processes, it should be complemented with other assessment tools.

By Julie Mollins, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News.

This work was supported by the French National Research Agency (ANR-11-CEPL-0009).

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund.

  • Home
  • Spilling the beans: FTA scientists contribute to new book about sustainable cocoa 

Spilling the beans: FTA scientists contribute to new book about sustainable cocoa 

Cacao produced in Cameroon. Photo by O. Girard/CIFOR
Posted by


With a distinguished editor and a variety of international experts as authors, including a number from the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing recently launched the book Achieving sustainable cultivation of cocoa, considered a new standard reference for scientists and producers of cocoa.

Eduardo Somarriba from the Agriculture, Livestock and Agroforestry Program (PRAGA) at CATIE (Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center) appears as a chapter author, while CATIE’s Rolando Cerda and Wilbert Phillips are coauthors.

Bioversity International’s Stephan Weise, Brigitte Laliberté and Jan Engels also contributed to the book. Meanwhile, the Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) saw a number of contributors across various chapters, namely Philippe Lachenaud, Didier Snoeck, Bernard Dubos, Leïla Bagny Beilhe, Régis Babin, Martijn ten Hoopen, Christian Cilas and Olivier Sounigo.

Read also: Achieving sustainable cultivation of cocoa

According to Francis Dodds, editorial director of Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing, the book discusses the existing challenges standing in the way of making cocoa crops more efficient and sustainable, in order to supply increasing demand, while taking into account the increasing age of plantations, decreasing performance and greater vulnerability to illnesses. At the same time, the authors heed increasing concerns about the environmental impact of cocoa on soil health and biodiversity.

The first part of the book looks at genetic resources and developments in production technologies. The second part discusses the optimization of crop techniques to take maximum advantage of the new varieties, while the third part summarizes recent research about the understanding of and fight against major viral and fungal diseases affecting cocoa. The fourth part covers security and quality issues, and finally the last part of the book analyzes ways to improve sustainability, including the role of agroforestry, organic crops, and ways to support small producers.

Achieving sustainable cultivation of cocoa

Notably, Somarriba and Philips contributed to the first and fifth sections of the book, with Somarriba addressing the issue of the analysis and design of the shade canopy of cocoa in agroforestry systems, and Phillips looking at the main challenges of conservation and exploiting cocoa genetic resources.

Read also: CATIE continues to improve people’s wellbeing across Latin America and Caribbean through education and research

The book was edited by the recognized and cocoa expert, Pathmanathan Umahran, director of the Research Centre for Cocoa and professor of genetic at the University of the Occidental Indies, in Trinidad and Tobago.

Martin Gilmour, Director of Research and Sustainability Development of Cocoa at Mars Global Chocolate, stated in a press release from Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing that the book would be of great interest for researchers, development agencies, governments, specialists in the industry and non-government organizations, as well as anyone interested in improving cocoa crop sustainability.

Adapted from the article by CATIE communicator Karla Salazar Leiva, originally published by CATIE.

For more information, contact Karla Salazar Leiva at [email protected] or Eduardo Somarriba, Leader of CATIE’s Agriculture, Livestock and Agroforestry Program, at [email protected].

  • Home
  • Achieving sustainable cultivation of cocoa

Achieving sustainable cultivation of cocoa

Posted by


There is a growing demand for cocoa. However, cultivation is dependent on ageing trees with low yields and increasing vulnerability to disease. There is growing concern about the environmental impact of cultivation in areas soil health and biodiversity. There is therefore an urgent need to make cocoa cultivation more efficient and sustainable to ensure a successful future. These challenges are addressed in Achieving sustainable cultivation of cocoa.

Part 1 reviews genetic resources and developments in breeding. Part 2 discusses optimising cultivation techniques to make the most of new varieties. Part 3 summaries the latest research on understanding and combatting the major fungal and viral diseases affecting cocoa. Part 4 covers safety and quality issues whilst the final part of the book looks at ways of improving sustainability, including the role of agroforestry, organic cultivation and ways of supporting smallholders. With its distinguished editor and international range of expert authors – including a number from CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) scientists – this collection will be a standard reference for cocoa scientists, growers and processors.

Part 1 Genetic resources and breeding

1. Taxonomy and classification of cacao: Ranjana Bhattacharjee, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Nigeria; and Malachy Akoroda, Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria, Nigeria;
2. Conserving and exploiting cocoa genetic resources: the key challenges: Brigitte Laliberté, Bioversity International, Italy; Michelle End, INGENIC (The International Group for Genetic Improvement of Cocoa), UK; Nicholas Cryer, Mondelez International, UK; Andrew Daymond, University of Reading, UK; Jan Engels, Bioversity International, Italy; Albertus Bernardus Eskes, formerly CIRAD and Bioversity International, France; Martin Gilmour, Barry Callebaut, USA; Philippe Lachenaud, Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement, France; Wilbert Phillips-Mora, Center for Tropical Agriculture Research and Education, Costa Rica; Chris Turnbull, Cocoa Research Association Ltd., UK; Pathmanathan Umaharan, Cocoa Research Centre, The University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago; Dapeng Zhang, USDA-ARS, USA; and Stephan Weise, Bioversity International, Italy;
3. The role of gene banks in preserving the genetic diversity of cacao: Lambert A. Motilal, The University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago;
4. Safe handling and movement of cocoa germplasm for breeding: Andrew Daymond, University of Reading, UK;
5. Developments in cacao breeding programmes in Africa and the Americas: Dário Ahnert, Universidade Estadual de Santa Cruz, Brazil; and Albertus Bernardus Eskes, formerly CIRAD and Bioversity International, France;

Part 2 Cultivation techniques

6. Cocoa plant propagation techniques to supply farmers with improved planting materials: Michelle End, INGENIC (The International Group for Genetic Improvement of Cocoa), UK; Brigitte Laliberté, Bioversity International, Italy; Rob Lockwood, Consultant, UK; Augusto Roberto Sena Gomes, Consultant, Brazil; George Andrade Sodré, CEPLAC/CEPEC, Brazil; and Mark Guiltinan and Siela Maximova, The Pennsylvania State University, USA;
7. The potential of somatic embryogenesis for commercial-scale propagation of elite cacao varieties: Siela N. Maximova and Mark J. Guiltinan, The Pennsylvania State University, USA;
8. Good agronomic practices in cocoa cultivation: rehabilitating cocoa farms: Richard Asare, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ghana; Victor Afari-Sefa, World Vegetable Center, Benin; Sander Muilerman, Wageningen University, The Netherlands; and Gilbert J. Anim-Kwapong, Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana, Ghana;
9. Improving soil and nutrient management for cacao cultivation: Didier Snoeck and Bernard Dubos, CIRAD, UR Systèmes de pérennes, France;

Part 3 Diseases and pests

10. Cocoa diseases: witches’ broom: Jorge Teodoro De Souza, Federal University of Lavras, Brazil; Fernando Pereira Monteiro, Federal University of Lavras and UNIVAG Centro Universitário, Brazil; Maria Alves Ferreira, Federal University of Lavras, Brazil; and Karina Peres Gramacho and Edna Dora Martins Newman Luz, Comissão Executiva do Plano da Lavoura Cacaueira (CEPLAC), Brazil;
11. Frosty pod rot, caused by Moniliophthora roreri: Ulrike Krauss, Palm Integrated Services and Solutions (PISS) Ltd., Saint Lucia;
12. Cocoa diseases: vascular-streak dieback: David I. Guest, University of Sydney, Australia; and Philip J. Keane, LaTrobe University, Australia;
13. Insect pests affecting cacao: Leïla Bagny Beilhe, Régis Babin and Martijn ten Hoopen, CIRAD, France;
14. Nematode pests of cocoa: Samuel Orisajo, Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria, Nigeria;
15. Advances in pest- and disease-resistant cocoa varieties: Christian Cilas and Olivier Sounigo, CIRAD, France; Bruno Efombagn and Salomon Nyassé, Institute of Agricultural Research for Development (IRAD), Cameroon; Mathias Tahi, CNRA, Côte d’Ivoire; and Sarah M. Bharath, Meridian Cacao, USA;

Part 4 Safety and sensory quality

16. Improving best practice with regard to pesticide use in cocoa: M. A. Rutherford, J. Crozier and J. Flood, CABI, UK; and S. Sastroutomo, CABI-SEA, Malaysia
17. Mycotoxins in cocoa: causes, detection and control: Mary A. Egbuta, Southern Cross University, Australia;
18. Analysing sensory and processing quality of cocoa: Darin A. Sukha and Naailah A. Ali, The University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago;

Part 5 Sustainability

19. Climate change and cocoa cultivation: Christian Bunn, Fabio Castro and Mark Lundy, International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia; and Peter Läderach, International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Vietnam;
20. Analysis and design of the shade canopy of cocoa-based agroforestry systems:Eduardo Somarriba, CATIE, Costa Rica; Luis Orozco-Aguilar, University of Melbourne, Australia; Rolando Cerda, CATIE, Costa Rica; and Arlene López-Sampson, James Cook University, Australia;
21. Organic cocoa cultivation: Amanda Berlan, De Montfort University, UK;
22. Cocoa sustainability initiatives: the impacts of cocoa sustainability initiatives in West Africa: Verina Ingram, Yuca Waarts and Fedes van Rijn, Wageningen University, The Netherlands;
23. Supporting smallholders in achieving more sustainable cocoa cultivation: the case of West Africa: Paul Macek, World Cocoa Foundation, USA; Upoma Husain and Krystal Werner, Georgetown University, USA.

This book is available for order from the publisher, Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing.

  • Home
  • Secrets of the Mutis Honey Hunters

Secrets of the Mutis Honey Hunters

Posted by


This story book is based on traditions and folk tales passed down for generations by the Olin Fobia people in Bonleu village, South Central Timor, Indonesia. These traditions have been practiced for hundreds of years. As some Olin Fobia traditions and tales are beginning to disappear, the Kanoppi Project and CIFOR are striving to document them before they do. Further, this book aims to motivate the younger generation to become involved in efforts to preserve forests, and to protect forest flora and fauna and their habitats.

  • Home
  • Playing for keeps: How a simple board game could lead to more sustainable oil palm

Playing for keeps: How a simple board game could lead to more sustainable oil palm

Posted by


Once reserved for military war games, the Companion Modeling approach has been developed and expanded over the past two decades to include the complex issues of renewable resources and environmental management. The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) is part of a consortium of international institutions led by the Swiss-based University, ETH Zurich, that is using ComMod to help chart a path toward more sustainable palm oil as part of a six-year project called OPAL, Oil Palm Adaptive Landscapes, being carried out in Cameroon, Colombia and Indonesia – some of the world’s biggest palm oil producers.

Originally published by CIFOR.

This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

  • Home
  • Carving a niche in the global market: The woodworkers of Jepara

Carving a niche in the global market: The woodworkers of Jepara

Posted by


Based on a long tradition of skilled family trade, the woodworking industry in Jepara, Indonesia, is branching out into global markets by investing in sustainable timber. With the national timber legality license now compatible with export licenses to the European Union, trade opportunities are expanding beyond borders. Scientists at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) are finding the connections between sustainable supply chains and better business for local people.

Originally published by CIFOR.

This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors.

  • Home
  • Integration is name of the game that forests and agriculture need to play

Integration is name of the game that forests and agriculture need to play

Banyan trees beside a river. Photo by FAO Forestry Mediabase
Posted by


Banyan trees. Photo by FAO Forestry Mediabase

Sustainable development of agriculture cannot be reached without acknowledging the important role forests have in landscapes and in value chains.

Agroforestry systems include not only traditional but also modern land-use systems where trees are managed together with crops and/or animal production systems in agricultural settings.

Whenever trees can be kept intact rather than be cleared for the purposes of agricultural production and forest ecosystems can thrive alongside crops, the more benefits are reaped. Considering this there is a need to facilitate the integration of agriculture and forestry relevant policies, allowing them to play better, together.

However, what is needed is a forward-looking focus on research, knowledge-generation and scaling-up with development of strong partnership among many different stakeholders. This is exactly what a side event at this year’s CFS 44 entitled “Forests, trees and agroforestry for food security and nutrition and the SDGs: Research and partners, toward a joint action agenda” aimed to debate.

The event itself was organized in a partnership between a large number of different stakeholders, including the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), The Netherlands Government, Tropenbos International and SIANI.

A strong case has been made for scaling up agroforestry in order to address the need for more productive and sustainable use of the land while assuring livelihoods and quality nutrition for the growing world population. In fact, as stated by FAO in their presentation on agroforestry, there is a constantly growing body of scientific literature that clearly demonstrates the gains accruing from agroforestry adoption, especially in regards to the improvement of the environment and people’s lives.

Continuing to invest in research is therefore essential. As FAO outlines “the agroforestry systems are dynamic, ecologically based, natural resource management systems that diversify and sustain production in order to increase social, economic and environmental benefits for land users at all scales.”

Click here to read the full story on the CFS website, by #CFS44 Social Reporter Ksenija Simovic.

As part of the live coverage during CFS44, this post covers the Forests, trees and agroforestry for food security and nutrition and the SDGs side event.

  • Home
  • The long and winding road to sustainable palm oil

The long and winding road to sustainable palm oil

A worker collects oil palm fruit. Photo by I. Cooke Vieira/CIFOR
Posted by


A worker collects oil palm fruit. Photo by I. Cooke Vieira/CIFOR

Finding a way forward for profits, people and the planet.

The polemic around the expansion of oil palm plantations in the tropics continues, and increasingly involves consumers concerned with sustainability. At the core of the debate is the matter of hard trade-offs between conservation and development. Reconciling such trade-offs is still the major challenge facing governments and companies.

Available evidence suggests that palm oil production has contradictory impacts. It has positive impacts on both local and national economic growth, and in alleviating rural poverty. Yet plantations also drive social conflict in their development, and bring detriment to forests and peatlands as they expand, leading to negative impacts due to biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The palm oil sector suffers from three performance issues, namely: land conflicts between local villagers and companies as well as immigrants, differences in yields between independent smallholders and industrial plantations, and a large carbon debt resulting from oil palm expansion into forestlands and peatlands. The challenge now is to find a way to ensure sustainable palm oil supply chains, in order to sustain economic gains while supporting conservation and climate action.

Employees drive to work on a plantation. Photo by I. Cooke Vieira/CIFOR


Efforts are being made by governments, companies and civil society organizations on different fronts and at different levels to enhance the palm oil sector’s performance. Commitments to sustainability made by major palm oil companies have been accompanied by a more aggressive sustainability discourse by governments, and many civil society organizations have begun to play a new role as facilitators in the implementation of standards by companies, or as intermediaries between private and public actors.

In Indonesia, the previous government made important efforts to respond to the global climate change agenda, resulting in a moratorium on new licenses to develop primary forest or peatlands, which unfortunately in practice had limited impacts on reducing deforestation. The major corporate groups, through the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP) brought some new perspectives to halting deforestation through supply chain interventions, yet interestingly that triggered a strong political response from the government on the primacy of state regulations.

Two new fronts have since emerged. On one front, efforts are being made to enhance mandatory standards for sustainability by strengthening Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) certification, accompanied by regulations on peatland intervention and restoration. On another front are efforts to safeguard the economic performance of the palm oil sector by expanding the domestic biodiesel market and applying subsidies to incentivize less competitive biodiesel production. In spite of strong arguments being made in favor of a social agenda, investments to support smallholders remain minimal.

An interesting turn of events has been the approval of an EU resolution suggesting that stronger constraints should apply to palm oil imports. This is not necessarily an opinion shared by some actors in Indonesia, who emphasize the importance of relying on national regulations. Signals have emerged that the government will be making the necessary steps to more fully embrace a sustainability framework. So far, the instrument for that seems to be a strengthened ISPO, with independent oversight. However, questions remain over the likely implementation costs, and institutional readiness at the local level.

Read also: Sustainable Palm Oil Production project synthesis: Understanding and anticipating global challenges

A young woman carries a bucket of harvested oil palm fruit. Photo by I. Cooke Vieira/CIFOR


The dispute over which rules to follow, whether it be international private sustainability standards and/or methods toward zero deforestation, or mandatory national standards has brought to light competing notions of sustainability, how to achieve progress, and who should be taking the lead.

A policy network analysis of the palm oil sector in Indonesia suggests that standards and initiatives for sustainability have contrasting visibility and impact among stakeholders, for example among governments, the corporate sector and NGOs. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), stands as a reference, while efforts by the Indonesian government to promote its own standard with ISPO have yet to gain traction. Hopes remain that it could benefit from an emerging multi-stakeholder group.

Overall, the lack of progress in the uptake of sustainable palm oil practices on the ground, in the view of different stakeholders, appears to be caused more by political and legal barriers than by technical challenges or concerns for economic losses. The fact is that the palm oil sector, particularly in relation to land allocation and regulatory controls, is dominated by a complex and ambiguous layer of regulations. When we add vested local interests in profiting from plantation expansion, we are left with a difficult puzzle indeed.

The situation also calls for increased efforts to enforce regional initiatives on High Conservation Value (HCV) assessments to guide decisions on land-use planning, as well as efforts to support smallholders within wider landscapes. This is all the more important when considering proposals for limiting the expansion of concessions across the country without addressing existing concessions (‘land banks’) that are partially covered by standing natural forests, and placing little regulatory control on the additional pressures of smallholders on forest conversion.

A young man uses a contraption to harvest fruit from the oil palms. Photo by I. Cooke Vieira/CIFOR

Clearly, improvements are needed in communication and transparency among stakeholders, not only to raise the bar of sustainability beyond existing ISPO requirements and to provide a more conducive environment for corporate commitments, but also to enhance the rule of law and improve governance. Legality and law enforcement are absolute prerequisites for cleaning the sector of its worst players and practices.


Governance of the palm oil sector is becoming more complex over time. In addition to national regulations, it involves a transnational regime in the form of RSPO standards, which are widely accepted by the private sector as the benchmark criteria for sustainability, at least by players downstream the supply chain. Different initiatives by financial institutions and governments in consumer countries, grouped under the Amsterdam Declaration, as well the industry-led European Sustainable Palm Oil initiative (ESPO), are endorsing RSPO as a way to ensure uptake of sustainable practices.

Major corporate groups have also adopted individual and collective commitments to sustainability. Some of these commitments rely on RSPO as the privileged system to demonstrate achievements. Commitments to zero deforestation tend to make explicit their own criteria, targets and timeframes, which in some cases are rather ambiguous. In the palm oil sector, they often make use of High Carbon Stocks (HCS) as the approach to identifying forests to be protected.

As mentioned, the Indonesian government has embarked on a mission of strengthening ISPO, which originally emerged as a bundle of existing public regulations on palm oil production grouped under one instrument. However, doubts over ISPO’s effectiveness and slow implementation have forced the government to put in place a process to improve the scheme’s legitimacy, such as by drawing on a multi-stakeholder group, and conducting an ongoing consultation process to overcome the main design shortcomings. Much of the credibility of ISPO will nonetheless rely on how far it manages to closes the gaps with RSPO, particularly with regards to HCV and FPIC (Free, Prior and Informed Consent).

Due to the growing complexity of palm oil governance, what we have now are three simultaneous processes for moving toward sustainable palm oil that intersect, but in different ways. One is interested in “sustainable supply”, triggered by RSPO, another is interested in “clean supply”, motivated by private commitments to zero deforestation, and the third aims to achieve “legal supply”, supported by government through a strengthened ISPO. This creates some confusion, and it is not clear what the implications are of each on the move toward sustainability.

Read also: What will it take to make sustainable palm oil the norm?

Bunches of oil palm fruit await transportation in a wheelbarrow. Photo by I. Cooke Vieira/CIFOR


In this order of things, many independent oil palm smallholders are threatened with becoming alienated from formal markets because they lack the technical capacity and/or resources to comply with public and private sustainability standards. Thus, a major challenge is to find ways to improve conditions for smallholders in accessing finance and technical services.

Since resolving compliance barriers will require targeted interventions, it is becoming increasingly important to better understand the types of barriers faced by different types of smallholders. Research conducted in Riau, and in Central and West Kalimantan, highlights the sustainability, legality and productivity challenges arising from independent smallholder oil palm expansion. Gendered impacts of oil palm development also deserve special consideration, given the additional burden on women.

Understanding who smallholders are is important, since it has become the case that frontier expansion is often driven by larger, out-of-province and absentee farmers who engage in oil palm for investment purposes, rather than by smaller farmers (for example, with plots less than three hectares in area) who are dependent primarily on household labor. Some of this expansion is associated with land speculation, as a way to appropriate economic rents under the expectation of a future increase in the commercial value of cleared lands.

Tenure legality issues – faced especially by smallholders whose oil palm operations more closely resemble that of businesses – constitute the most significant compliance challenge. There is an ongoing debate over how to deal with illegality and to channel financial resources and technical support, not only to regulate oil palm expansion, but to enhance the performance of smallholders.


Different and complementary initiatives are emerging to address performance issues in the sector. These embrace three broad objectives, namely: to implement traceability systems while overcoming challenges to involve smallholders; to refine and harmonize sustainability standards and tools; and to reconcile supply chain and landscape management approaches.

Enhancing traceability and smallholder inclusion

Major corporate groups in the palm oil sector are developing traceability systems to monitor and verify their performance with respect to their commitments to zero deforestation. Given the challenges to smallholder inclusion in this context, a number of companies and NGOs are collaborating to develop new business models and value chain strategies to support the inclusion of smallholders and enhance their compliance capacity. This is a work in progress.

Refining and harmonizing sustainability standards and tools

The most relevant process in this regard has been the HCS Convergence Agreement, which harmonizes methodologies to estimate high carbon stocks, and complements HCV with HCS. Other ongoing initiatives include RSPO Next, which is a set of advanced, add-on criteria for palm-oil growers seeking to comply with the aims of “no deforestation, no fire, no planting on peat, reduction of GHGs, and respect for human rights and transparency”, as well as efforts to strengthen ISPO. A major issue is how to implement on-the-ground standards that are increasingly demanding technically, and for which there are no institutional conditions, such as legality.

Reconciling supply chain interventions and landscape management

The private sector and NGOs are increasingly acknowledging that progress will only be piecemeal if underlying structural issues affecting the palm oil sector are not comprehensively addressed. Supporting efforts in specific jurisdictions to identify and register smallholder lands, and to promote district-level monitoring, reporting and verification of land-use change, are being undertaken as part of wider jurisdictional-based initiatives, emerging as a way to scale up innovations and solutions. These approaches may have potential, but have yet to prove their effectiveness.

Watch: Sustainable development of Cameroon’s palm oil

Workers take before fertilizing the next line of trees. Photo by I. Cooke Vieira/CIFOR


Different futures are possible for oil palm expansion, with diverse consequences for development and conservation and their trade-offs. All depends on how far the government and the private sector will go in embracing their sustainability policies, and how effectively they are implemented and monitored.

The most likely scenarios are: 1) a business-as-usual scenario, in which oil palm plantations continue to expand at the current rate; 2) a moratorium scenario, in which the government applies increasing constraints to development on primary and secondary forests and peatlands; 3) a zero-deforestation scenario, in which deforestation is completely stopped in oil palm concessions; and 4) a sustainable intensification scenario, in which expansion continues on suitable lands, with greater social inclusion.

Emerging findings from scenario analysis in Central Kalimantan, when looking at the impacts of oil palm expansion on ecosystem services (comprising carbon stock and storage, habitat quality, water yield and palm oil production), suggest that the zero-deforestation scenario is the most desirable option. This scenario, however, requires a review of the forest moratorium that should encompass all forest types, as well as a clear land-use policy, strategy and detailed land-use plan involving all jurisdictions and stakeholders. The next most desirable scenario is sustainable intensification that would avoid the release of carbon, while continuing to contribute to increased palm oil supply resulting from enhanced yields.

When looking at Indonesia as a whole, scenario research suggests that zero-deforestation commitments and the moratorium on large-scale oil palm plantation expansion could reduce deforestation by 25% and 28%, respectively. These measures could also cut GHG emissions from land-use change by 13% and 16%, respectively, over the period 2010–2030. Even under the zero-deforestation and moratorium scenarios, Indonesia is projected to increase palm oil supply between 97% to 124% over 2010–2030, partly due to higher production originating from smallholders. Both measures – zero-deforestation commitments and a moratorium on large-scale expansion – would limit future deforestation in Indonesia, while maintaining the country’s leading role in the global palm oil market.

Foresight analysis is key in the debate on sustainable palm oil development. It can provide data and information to allow for evidence-based policy making. Public and private decision-makers, and multi-stakeholder initiatives should pay more attention to likely futures analysis to guide their decisions on action to reduce deforestation and GHG emissions, while finding options to improve productivity, legality and inclusion in the palm oil sector, with solutions that are acceptable to all stakeholders, and the wider society.

By Pablo Pacheco, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News

For more information on this topic, please contact Pablo Pacheco at [email protected].

This research is supported by USAID funding for CIFOR’s Governing Oil Palm Landscapes for Sustainability (GOLS) project, and this work is partly funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development KNOWFOR Program Grant to CIFOR.

This research is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), which is funded by CGIAR Fund Donors.

Back to top

Sign up to our monthly newsletter

Connect with us