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Nepal: the second country with a national agroforestry policy

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Nepal is the 2nd country in the world to have a national agroforestry policy. This was possible through FTA support.
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FTA communications

FTA brings evidence-based research and technical support to the table

In landlocked, mountainous Nepal – a country with 45% forest cover – agroforestry is not a new practice. Many farmers have kept trees in and around croplands to diversify their incomes and build resilience to the shocks of a changing climate.

But legal restrictions on the trade of timber and forest products and the harvest and transport of trees grown on agricultural land, combined with 32 (often contradictory) national polices that referred to agroforestry, have largely discouraged farmers from growing trees on their farms.

Change is now in course!

In 2019, following India, Nepal became the second country in the world to have a national agroforestry policy. As the world’s largest research for development program to enhance the role of forests, trees and agroforestry in sustainable development, the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) – through its partner World Agroforestry (ICRAF) – played a pivotal role in the development of the policy, building on its previous experience in India in 2014.  In 2016 and 2017, the development of the policy was supported by a program by the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN).

“The dividends of implementing the agroforestry policy in India are impressive: around 2% increase in forest and tree cover during 2015–2019 – of that around 1.8 % is outside of forests – and trees grown outside forests are producing more than 70% of the country’s timber requirement reducing pressure on forests. We expect a similar transformative impact of policy implementation in Nepal,” said ICRAF Principal Scientist and Regional Director of the South Asia Regional Program, Dr Javed Rizvi.

Nepal is among the world’s most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change, such as droughts, storms, landslides, soil erosion and avalanches. Melting snow and glaciers in the Himalayas result in devastating glacier lake outburst floods.

Agroforestry is recognized by more than 60 countries as a tool either for adaptation or mitigation of climate change, according CGIAR research, as well as being a proven way to improve food, nutritional and environmental security. Thus, development of the policy is in line with Nepal’s Nationally Determined Contributions (2016) and Climate Change Policy (2011).

Extensive engagement

“Any process leading to wide-scale change in the land-use sector has to be inclusive and multifaceted. We adopted a holistic approach, the most reasonable and efficient pathway for inducing transformational changes in complex and socially-differentiated agricultural areas,” said Dr Rizvi, who was confirmed as the only non-governmental member of the inter-ministerial committee (IMC) that oversaw the policy development. To date, he remains associated with the committee that oversees policy implementation.

Recognition of the need to formulate and implement a National Agroforestry Policy in Nepal originated during the three-day national consultation workshop on agroforestry held in Kathmandu on 26–28 March 2015. Involving more than 150 stakeholders representing various sectors related with agriculture, forestry and rural development, the workshop was jointly organized by the Ministry of Agriculture Development (MOAD), Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation (MFSC), the Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources (ANSAB), and ICRAF. This consultation led to the 2015 Kathmandu Declaration on Agroforestry. Signed by the Secretaries of the Ministry of Agricultural Development and the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation, the Declaration called for the development of an agroforestry policy for Nepal to help improve the livelihoods of smallholders and enhance their socioeconomic resilience.

In seven consultations held between 2016 and 2018, perspectives were gathered from more than 550 stakeholders and incorporated into the draft policy, which was submitted to the Ministry of Agricultural Development in September 2018. After approval by the Cabinet in a session chaired by the Prime Minister, the final policy was launched on 3 July 2019 by the Minister of Agriculture in Kathmandu.

ICRAF provided technical support to the inter-ministerial committee constituted to oversee the policy formulation, with financing from the Climate Technology Centre and Network. This support included an analysis of 32 policies, laws and strategies affecting agroforestry in Nepal, pointing to a clear need to develop a new agroforestry policy.

“It took a lot of engagement with a lot of people at all levels of society, from ministers and secretaries of departments through to state leaderships to communities and farmers’ associations. Throughout the process, we continuously worked with the government and stakeholders as a trusted technical partner and supported the process based on our experience with Indian agroforestry policy,” said Dr Rizvi.

Launching the policy, Agriculture Minister Mr Chakrapani Khanal said, “With the approval and launch of the National Agroforestry Policy, Nepal achieved the distinction of being second country globally, after India, to launch an agroforestry policy”.

Launch of the policy by the Minister and Secretary of Agriculture; member, Planning Commission of Nepal; with Dr Javed Rizvi (left to right). Photo: World Agroforestry (Mohammad Abiar/ICRAF)

During the consultation period, engagement also spread beyond national borders. Through its South Asia Regional Program (SARP), ICRAF initiated brainstorming with government policymakers, thinktanks, researchers and others on the requirements of a national agroforestry policy. Currently, the program is working with stakeholders in Bangladesh and Maldives on their agroforestry policies.

In 2019, SARP and its partners, especially the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) and Tamil Nadu Agriculture University trained 26 mid-level policymakers from Asia and Africa[1] in agroforestry policy, research, innovation and development, catalyzing agroforestry research and development in the respective countries. Between 10 and 24 October, 2019, the group participated in three phases of training, first at ICRAF’s Delhi office, then at the Central Agroforestry Research Institute (CAFRI) in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, and finally at the Forest College and Research Institute (FCRI) in Mettupalayam, Tamil Nadu. The curriculum comprised 26 classroom lectures, 8 case studies and several field visits.

Addressing the trainees, Mustapha El Hamzaoui, Director of the Food Security Office at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in India, which funded the  training, said: “Agroforestry is the ideal approach to secure a sustainable future for humankind. You are all becoming ambassadors of agroforestry for your countries”.

The program ignited interest from the South and Southeast Asian regions. ICRAF is also working with member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). ASEAN ministers of agriculture and forestry adopted the ASEAN Guidelines for Agroforestry Development in 2018, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) established a technical cooperation program with ASEAN to implement the guidelines, focusing on three pilot countries: Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar. FTA, through ICRAF, is the program’s main technical partner.

“Under this cooperation, national agroforestry roadmaps will be developed to guide activities moving forward,” said Delia Catacutan, Regional Coordinator of ICRAF in Southeast Asia.

Trainees, trainers and donor representatives at the inaugural day of the training

Trainees, trainers and donor representatives at the inaugural day of the training

Roadmap to impact

The National Agroforestry Policy is expected to clear the path for a more comprehensive use of agroforestry by smallholders, and to strengthen the capacity of policymakers, researchers and extension workers to promote more resilient farming systems, support tree-planting initiatives, and ensure ecological stability by reducing pressure on natural forests from over-collection of fuelwood and fodder. It also aims to facilitate investment in agroforestry and promote connections between agroforestry farmers and markets, industries, banks and insurance providers.

Intensifying the agricultural value of cultivated areas, agroforestry – which can be less labor-intensive than annual crop farming – could be a game-changer in rural communities affected by migration. As young men (mainly) leave their villages for paid work in other parts of the country or overseas, it is the elders, women and children who must bear the burden of cultivating the fields. This results in underused existing agricultural land and household incomes suffering. Agroforestry could help communities develop new income streams and get more out of their land – without having to cover so much ground.

Mapping it out

Land productivity varies widely across Nepal, making it difficult for government planners, development agencies and scientists to target suitable areas for agroforestry in order to implement the policy. In many situations data is not available. For this reason ICRAF continues to provide scientific evidence-based advice to support the development of agroforestry in the country. Researchers from the Vindhyan Ecology and Natural History Foundation, Ranchi University, Ministry of Forest and Environment of Nepal, and ICRAF’s South Asia Regional Program used different geospatial datasets of land, soil, climate and topography to identify potential areas where trees can be sustainably established on farms. In 2020 they published their findings in the journal Modeling Earth Systems and Environment.

“Agroforestry is very important for Nepal to improve livelihoods and the resilience of smallholders to the challenges of climate change and extreme events. In close collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development, ICRAF and the provincial governments, we are mainstreaming agroforestry in our programs,” said Bishwa Nath Oli, Secretary, Ministry of Forests and Environment, Government of Nepal.

This is a result that FTA is proud to have facilitated.

[1] Trainees were from Bangladesh, Botswana, Cambodia, Malawi, Myanmar, Nepal, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Uganda.

This article was written by Erin O’Connell.

Produced by the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) together with one of its managing partners, the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR). FTA is the world’s largest research for development program to enhance the role of forests, trees and agroforestry in sustainable development and food security and to address climate change. CIFOR leads FTA in partnership with Bioversity International, CATIE, CIRAD, INBAR, ICRAF and TBI. FTA’s work is supported by the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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  • Standing tall: Bamboo from restoration to economic development

Standing tall: Bamboo from restoration to economic development

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A woman stands beside an allanblackia tree, which can provide an edible oil and increase the incomes of farmers. Photo by C. Pye-Smith/ICRAF
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Can grass be used to make tissues, furniture, pipes and even housing? Can it help to improve livelihoods and to mitigate climate change? Think beyond garden lawns and savannah landscapes, to bamboo.

“Bamboos, although they look like trees,” said the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation’s (INBAR) Director General Hans Friederich in opening a recent side event at the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Bonn, Germany, “are actually all grass species.”

Bamboo provides a durable building material and strong fiber for paper and textiles without the need to fell trees. Additionally, Friederich explained that as a grass, bamboo grows back quickly after being harvested – making it a highly sustainable product to work with.

Titled Bamboo for restoration and economic development, the discussion addressed how bamboo fits into conversations about land management, land restoration, erosion control and nature-based solutions for development challenges.

“[We need to] make that connection between bamboo as a plant, as a means to hold soil together, to think about climate change mitigation […] and then link that to the market,” he said. “What actually can we do with this bamboo once we plant it?”

“To have a value chain that actually identifies the market opportunities is important,” he added.

Eduardo Mansur, director of land and water at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UN) underlined the importance of nature-based solutions, and combining green and grey infrastructure – that is, natural ecosystems with human-engineered solutions.

He described the huge amount of degraded land on the planet, saying: “If we restore this degraded land that exists on the planet […] we will be able to produce the products, the food and the ecosystem services that we need for sustainable livelihoods and sustainable life on the planet.”

“We have seen examples of species-specific conservation,” he said, “when it links with sustainable livelihoods.” Giving the example of the Brazilian Amazon, Mansur described a species of palm that produces an inedible coconut known as “vegetable ivory” for its color and texture. Used to make buttons and handicrafts, it has helped to improve the ecosystems where the palm occurs, he said, because there is a market link.

Such a species can be used to promote sustainable livelihoods and sustainable use, he added, drawing a comparison with the over 1,600 species of bamboo. If a bamboo species is well chosen and well managed, it can have ongoing positive effects, especially for soil restoration.

Read also: Bamboo and rattan: Surprising tools for forest protection

Ye Ling, president and chief engineer at Zhejiang Xinzhou Bamboo-based Composites Technology Co., Ltd, discussed how his company develops products from bamboo on a large scale – such as pressure pipes and modular housing from a bamboo composite – which offer better performance and lower costs and can replace a huge quantity of traditional materials such as cement and steel, thus helping to tackle climate change and contributing to the SDGs.

A woman whittles a piece of bamboo in India. Photo by International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR)

He emphasized innovation as the most important factor in product development, saying that without it, other factors such as policy or investment would have nowhere to go.

Trinh Thang Long, coordinator of the Global Assessment of Bamboo and Rattan for green development (GABAR) at INBAR said the organization’s 44 member states had begun to learn specifically from China’s use of bamboo for economic development.

GABAR aims to maximize bamboo and rattan’s contribution to national economic development and environmental protection, to help inform policies, development strategies and opportunities for investment.

Many countries are not yet fully aware of the advantages of bamboo compared to trees, Long explained. He emphasized that the grasses are fast growing, easy to manage, and can be harvested annually after the first four to five years.

INBAR’s member states are contributing to the Bonn Challenge by restoring 5 million hectares of degraded land using bamboo. On a small scale, the work has been successful, but upscaling remains a challenge.

This challenge affects many countries, but a case study in China illustrates the success of scaled-up bamboo. Jiang Jingyan, President of Yong’an Institute of Bamboo Industry, discussed Yong’an, China, and its reputation as a “bamboo city”. Concurring with previous speakers, he also addressed the importance of design and innovation.

Read also: Realizing bamboo and rattan’s full potential: An interview with INBAR Director General Hans Friederich

The CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry’s (FTA) Director Vincent Gitz then spoke about land restoration and the key constraints to upscaling, including policies and governance. He gave special attention to the economic aspects of land restoration – costs and benefits, investments and value chains.

“There won’t be any sustainable land restoration if we don’t give the means to increase, over time, the livelihoods of people that live on those lands,” he said.

There is often a time lag between a smallholder making an investment and seeing a return. However, as bamboo grows quickly and is extremely versatile, it is a strong option for restoration in different contexts. “Lots of innovation can come out of this plant,” he added.

Speakers participate in Side Event 4 at the Global Landscapes Forum in Bonn, Germany. Photo by Pilar Valbuena/GLF

An additional step is using bamboo to restore degraded lands while simultaneously creating clean energy, Gitz said, referring to an initiative from Clean Power Indonesia, which FTA is part of, and which is building small-scale bamboo-based energy generation plants in West Sumatra.

Touching further on industrial development, Cai Liang, the chief branding officer of Vanov Bamboo Tissue Enterprise in Sichuan, China, discussed the use of bamboo pulp for paper manufacturing, specifically for tissues. From concept to commitment, the company moved to develop a tissue paper using bamboo, without cutting down a single tree.

After years of experimentation, the company came up with soft, unbleached, antibacterial tissues made from bamboo fiber. Once again highlighting bamboo’s short growth period, constant regeneration and sustainability, Liang described how bamboo could provide the fibers typically taken from multiple types of trees to make paper.

Read also: Study examines bamboo value chains to support industry growth

As well as using the fiber to make the tissues themselves, the company uses waste from the process for energy generation and for fertilizer. The low-emission, closed-loop model uses over 1 million tons of bamboo annually, and offers over 1 million job opportunities for local farmers.

In closing, Friederich underscored this link between restoration and socioeconomics, harking back to Gitz’s presentation.

“If we want to succeed in restoration, we cannot only look at the landscapes – of course we need to look at the landscapes – but we need to look at the people in the landscapes and to connect them with the value chains that can come out of the productive aspects of restoration,” Gitz said.

“We can’t just stay where we are, and I think there are still some great opportunities for making new products from bamboo and looking at new ways of using bamboo within the landscape,” Friederich added.

By Hannah Maddison-Harris, FTA Communications and Editorial Coordinator. 

Read more about INBAR’s participation in GLF Bonn 2018, or check out the summary of discussions from the forum.

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  • Technology is Culture: Building a Transdisciplinary Team to Address Community Energy and Urban Revitalization Challenges

Technology is Culture: Building a Transdisciplinary Team to Address Community Energy and Urban Revitalization Challenges

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Traditional development models assume that countries of the Global South will undergo an economic trajectory roughly equivalent to that of the Global North. The reality of climate change caused by the burning of fossil fuels raises the prospect that a new model, founded on renewable and sustainable energy will have to be designed. At the same time, rural locations in North, face devastating economic consequences of an industrial model that has left them behind. Our international, transdisciplinary research team, working in Eastern and Southern Africa on sustainable biomass energy and in New Kensington, PA on rural small town renewal, seeks to understand the intersection of community preferences, technological innovation, gender relations and environmental sciences to develop socio/technological interventions. We flip the development model, bringing African expertise to bear on US-based problems and US-based insights to understand subculture specific cultural preferences in Kenya. This presentation outlines how we work together, the methods we use to engage in creative problem solving and the unique “kitchen laboratory” used on the Kenyan side to assess cooking energy needs.

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  • Financing blue carbon development

Financing blue carbon development

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The increasing demand of the world population to protein source from marine ecosystems in the last few decades have triggered the fast-growing industry of fisheries and aquaculture in both marine and inland waters. Consequently, overfishing is inevitable and many fishing grounds in Indonesia are steadily depleting. Combination of improved fisheries, good aquaculture practices, modernized post-harvest storage and processing industries could lead to sustainable blue economy.

Originally published by CIFOR.

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  • Integrating REDD+ with development goals at the landscape level: The role of multistakeholder forums in subnational jurisdictions

Integrating REDD+ with development goals at the landscape level: The role of multistakeholder forums in subnational jurisdictions

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Through a comparative study spanning 13 case studies in 4 countries, researchers at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) will examine the equity and effectiveness of the processes and outcomes of multi-stakeholder forums set up around land use and land use change. The project will specifically engage with forums that bring together government, local and private-sector stakeholders around subnational jurisdictions.

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  • Bridging funding gaps for climate and sustainable development: Pitfalls, progress and potential of private finance

Bridging funding gaps for climate and sustainable development: Pitfalls, progress and potential of private finance

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In a world where natural capital is often unpriced or undervalued, thus making resource exploitation very lucrative, environmentally degrading activities will continue to dominate the economy. The past decade has seen a bourgeoning interest in scaling up private investment to address persistent socioeconomic and environmental challenges globally. The recently formulated sustainable development goals and global climate agenda have further heightened the urgency for a more holistic and integrated conceptualization of transitioning towards a sustainable low-carbon economy. Despite the increasing appeal of green finance as a concept, the delivery of an empirical evidence base that illustrates the effectiveness of projects aligned with climate action and sustainable development—both in terms of measurable performance and value for money—has been less forthcoming. Concurrently, there have been numerous claims of the potential of ‘unlocking’ the trillions of dollars of private finance that is available for investment.

We perform a critical analysis of literature from across a spectrum of research topics to explore the inhibiting barriers and apparent disconnect between the purported available—or required—finance and the actual finance invested in sustainable development. Furthermore, we consider actions that government agencies and the research community might consider in order to better incentivize private investment in developing and low-income countries that will facilitate low-carbon sustainable development. We provide suggestions for fiscal and policy reform in addition to identifying the need for a centralized reporting and convening body. We conclude that far more coordinated efforts are required to encourage investments in long-term and sustainable landscape-scale initiatives. Current efforts at securing finance, implementing initiatives and building the knowledge base are accelerating but remain fragmented and often sectorial in their nature; we thus offer some key recommendations for areas of future progress.

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  • The long and winding road to sustainable palm oil

The long and winding road to sustainable palm oil

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

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.

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  • From commitment to action: Establishing action points toward operationalizing integrated landscape approaches

From commitment to action: Establishing action points toward operationalizing integrated landscape approaches

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Authors: Reed, J.; Van Vianen, J.; Sunderland, T.C.H.


  • There is congruence between the action points for establishing landscape approaches identified from both the theory literature and case studies
  • Coordinated policies that utilize landscape approach frameworks are necessary for fulfilling climate and development objectives
  • Multilevel governance structures and independently facilitated multistakeholder negotiation platforms are fundamental to achieving progress.

Series: CIFOR Infobrief no. 158

Pages: 4p.

Publisher: Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Bogor, Indonesia

Publication Year: 2016

DOI: 10.17528/cifor/006259

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  • Landscape-scale management for sustainable development

Landscape-scale management for sustainable development

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