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Q&A on Land with Dr Christopher Stewart

Dr Christopher Stewart is Head of Environment and Sustainability for Olam Gabon.

1) Olam has palm operations. Why doesn’t Olam have a Zero Deforestation Commitment?

‘Zero deforestation’ commitments, whether stand-alone policies or pledges made through the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), Tropical Forest Alliance (TFA) and the New York Declaration on Forests, are surprisingly complex to implement. Highly forested nations feel that they should not be held to the same standard as those which have already deforested a large proportion of their lands, and there is heated debate about forest definition and thresholds, ‘zero-gross’ versus ‘zero-net’ deforestation, and carbon offsetting.

Olam’s plantations are in Gabon, a country which has about 88% forest cover. However, to reduce its reliance on food imports (currently about 60%) and to diversify its income away from fossil fuel exports, the Government has embarked on a major agricultural plan where there was previously very little activity – mainly subsistence. Hence the joint ventures with Olam for palm and rubber.

While grassland, savannah and scrub are the preferred landscape for our plantation development, it has been supplemented with some areas of low density logged over forest. These areas are where carbon stocks are significantly lower than mature forest, and only where a third party assessment with full public and expert consultation has not revealed the presence of High Conservation Values.

The debates continue over definitions of ‘zero-deforestation’ and we are in the lead working groups on the subject. In the meantime, we focus on our Commitment to forest conservation which is practical and transparent.

Based on our experience of responsible plantation development in Gabon, and governed by our Sustainable Palm Policy (2015) and our Plantations, Concessions and Farms (PCF) Code, this commitment aims to:

  • protect High Conservation Value (HCV) and primary forests, in order to conserve biodiversity and ecosystem services
  • protect High Carbon Stock (HCS) forests and manage greenhouse gas emissions, in order to limit climate impacts from land use change, and
  • respect the rights of local communities through Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC).

Olam Palm Gabon has set a benchmark of quality for HCV assessments in Africa since 2011, selecting sites with the least possible impact, and protecting the most valuable forests in the landscape.

We are the only company to date (2016) to publish a fully independent High Carbon Stock analysis of our plantation footprint, which showed a net positive impact on the climate. We have delivered on social contracts with all the villages in the vicinity of our plantations. We have improved the underlying science through multiple research projects, and supported the Gabon government in its efforts to establish a sustainable National Land Use Plan. Whilst the policy debate rages on, our hope that our record speaks for itself.

2) Why will it take until 2020 for all Olam Palm suppliers to comply with the Olam Palm Policy?

Let me highlight that all suppliers of oil palm to Olam have already signed the Olam Supplier Code and/or have established a sustainable palm oil policy that includes commitment on supply chain traceability. This means that all of the palm oil we trade and use comes from suppliers who are committed to ensuring that their suppliers conform to the Code which covers environmental and labour issues.

The process of complete certification of the supply chain is a path dependent process, it needs to know exactly where and how the fresh fruit bunches (FFB) are grown. We are working with our suppliers to trace back the oil to the mill as a first step and have taken the logical timeline for this activity to be duly completed.

The debate about environmental footprint certification also overlaps the livelihood of smallholders in remote locations and this exercise of tracing the supplies back to sustainable sources needs to also take into account the human impact of the decision. The sustainable chain of custody for derivatives requires engagement with multiple partners.

As a way forward, our company is partnering with other international organisations, such as World Resources Institute (WRI), to monitor the supply base around a 50 km radius of a specific mill, a common distance. This will assist our team to prioritise field inspections to verify compliance and design engagement actions with our progressive suppliers.

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