Embedding nature conservation within economic development: the Sustainable Landscapes Partnership

Blog, 24 January 2017

Indonesia is the global leader in palm oil: The country is currently producing more than half of the world’s supply, of which 81 percent is exported to international markets, generating US$ 17 billion in tax and export revenues. And the industry is rapidly expanding, as Indonesia’s production of palm oil has doubled in just the last ten years. This fast growth has brought greater attention to the negative environmental and social issues associated with unsustainable palm oil production: issues such as increased greenhouse gas emissions caused by deforestation and forest fires; land conflicts between communities; impacts on food security; and human rights abuses suffered by farmers.

Conservation International (CI)’s Sustainable Landscapes Partnership (SLP) is working to change Indonesia’s industry — combining conservation and economic development to achieve truly sustainable palm oil.

Indonesia relies heavily on smallholder plantations, which make up 40 percent of all plantations. These smallholder growers regularly report increased income from the cultivation of palm oil, as well as other livelihood benefits such as improved education and health opportunities for their children. The immediate allure of the palm oil industry is clear — while the negative effects of the industry on the environment may be long-lasting and astronomical.

As Indonesia’s palm oil industry has grown, daily greenhouse gas emissions from forest fires have exceeded the daily emissions of the entire U.S. economy in 2015. This spurred the Government of Indonesia into action, and they banned all palm oil plantations on peatlands and announced a moratorium on new palm oil concessions. Despite these measures, significant steps still need to be taken to address community development needs, while reducing the environmental damage of palm oil production. CI is working to achieve this through the SLP.

CI has been active in Indonesia for almost 30 years, helping conserve the country’s natural resources and improve human well-being. A key element of CI Indonesia’s mission is to support Indonesia’s commitment to reducing 41 percent of its emissions (with international assistance) against current figures by 2020. In order to achieve this ambitious goal, CI launched the SLP into Indonesia in 2010, starting with a project supporting low-emission development in the agriculture sector in North Sumatra. In this province, focus areas for palm oil plantations are located near key biodiversity areas in the districts of South Tapanuli and Mandailing Natal. The SLP has been working with the local government, the private sector and smallholder farmers to make it easier and more profitable to produce responsible palm oil. This has been primarily achieved through three activities:

  1. SLP contributes to improving governance by providing a range of scientific data, capacity building and broader technical support for mandatory strategic environmental assessments that define the best places for palm oil production and for nature conservation. 
  2. In partnership with the Environmental Agency of North Sumatra, CI convenes several forums at the provincial and district levels, enabling the government, private sector and community members to share information and advocate for certain practices. Participants discuss funding — including setting up public-private partnerships to promote low emission business models — and how to develop and launch sustainable production systems. As a result of the forums, 16 palm oil producers have chosen to adopt sustainable palm oil practices, a commitment in line with recommendations set by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, a non-profit that works with stakeholders throughout the industry to minimize the environmental and social impacts of unsustainable production.
  3. The SLP provides training and support to the Field Extension Services team in North Sumatra that works directly with palm oil smallholders to help them comply with environmental policies and apply good practices. 

While recognizing the importance of dialogue, awareness raising and capacity-building, SLP goes one step further. The program is currently establishing agreements with communities, or Community Conservation Agreements (CCA), through which smallholders commit to conservation in exchange for socio-economic benefits and technical assistance. The first step is to conduct an assessment to determine how to design the CCA, taking into account the socio-economic conditions of palm oil smallholders, as well as the priority areas for conservation, sustainable production and community needs. This assessment will identify necessary conservation actions, as well as suitable benefits for communities.

But in Indonesia, whether on the individual, regional or country level, striking a balance between the need to conserve areas of high conservation value and the desire for economic growth has proven difficult. In areas like the West Papua Conservation Province, one of the country’s most densely forested landscapes, palm oil plantations are expanding rapidly — and threatening critical biodiversity.

The concerns around rampant palm oil expansion – deforestation, climate change, social conflict – are on the minds of the world’s leaders: the EU is currently evaluating policies to end its “imported deforestation”. As governments, business and consumers increasingly rethink how their policies, sourcing decisions and purchases impact communities, forests and the global climate, there is an urgent and growing need for constructive collaboration and successful models of palm oil production done right. The time for sustainable palm oil is now. 

For more information about CI’s Sustainable Landscapes Partnership in Indonesia, click here.