Sabah Ready To Trail-Blaze The World On Certified Sustainable Palm Oil

Frederick Kugan, left, and Cynthia Ong spoke about a conservation based economy that draws on jurisdictional scale initiatives to address deforestation and produce certified sustainable palm oil.

KOTA KINABALU: Sabah’s pursuit of a conservation based economy that draws on jurisdictional scale initiatives to fully certify its palm oil and address deforestation through a Sabah statewide Forest Management Plan will need major relationship and behavioural change across and between sectors, both in Malaysia and globally.

In the two years since the Sabah Government pledged to produce palm oil to Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) standards by 2025, the Jurisdictional Certification Steering Committee (JCSC) entrusted with the task has been challenged by uneven readiness, constrained capacities, inconsistent institutional commitments, systematic fragmentation and skepticism.

Sabah’s story shared at the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action to celebrate Forests Day at COP23 in Bonn, Germany on Sunday, opened by highlighting that the Malaysian Borneo state produces 10 per cent of global palm oil supply while staying on track to have 30 per cent of its land mass secured as Totally Protected Areas by 2025. It currently stands at 26 per cent or 1.9 million hectares.

Frederick Kugan, Sabah Forestry Department Deputy Conservator of Forests (Forest Sector Planning) said moving to 100 per cent RSPO certified palm oil translates into adopting a credible voluntary standard and integrating this into state policy and the legal framework.

“In tandem, we are embarking on a process to prepare a 25-year Sabah-wide Forest Management Plan. Our forest frontiers, watersheds and ecological systems are persistently threatened by the push to grow and supply more, abetted by the world’s growing appetite for one of its most efficient vegetable oils.

An oil palm plantation in Sabah.

“These twin initiatives will decouple increased productivity of oil palm and deforestation and initiate conservation based economies,” he said in a panel on New Developments in Eliminating Deforestation from Key Supply Chains which highlighted new commitments to deforestation free commodities.

He also gave an overview of the JCSC that is co-chaired by Sabah Forestry Department and the Natural Resources Office and which is equal parts government, private sector and civil society. All this is possible because of the commitment of the current State Government and its readiness to engage with interested parties towards this cause.

Work has started on mapping High Conservation Value – High Carbon Stock (HCV-HCS) areas to guide go, and no-go areas, for oil palm; integration of Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) into Sabah’s legal and institutional landscape; and organising smallholders and building support systems to address land legalities, farm management, productivity, training, and health and safety.

“These combined actions are oriented towards three goals: achieve no loss to HCV-HCS forests; enable zero conflict in oil palm production landscapes and; strengthen smallholder sustainability and uplift livelihoods.

“Thanks to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) 10 Year Food Program and RSPO, we are connected in a joint process with Central Kalimantan, which is also embarking on jurisdictional certification at the district level, to share experiences in the smallholder component of the larger work,” Kugan said.

Sharing the stage was Cynthia Ong, Forever Sabah Chief Executive Facilitator, who stressed that Sabah’s jurisdictional certification process is about governance and inclusive decision-making, and will require reforms of long-standing laws and institutions often dating from colonial times that still dominate how land is allocated and used.

“When policy and processes are hurtling in a direction charted on a historically extractive development trajectory, entire systems’ change is required to make the pivot towards closing the deforestation frontier and this takes collective perseverance and time.

“Silos have to come down, polarized perspectives have to meet, robust tables, open spaces and trust have to be built, and we need leaps of faith, heads out of clouds, hands in dirt and courageous hearts in gear,” Ong said.

She said Sabah’s process is confronted by the internal tension of the unilateral push for national standards and targets without prior consultation with the State, and external tensions such as the impending European Union decision on palm oil imports that could have an immediate effect on industry behavior.

Ong also said old financing models and strategies that constrict sufficient and consistent flow of funds to the work are a major limitation to Sabah’s process, having received less than US200,000 (RM846,000) from the international community as Malaysia is regarded as a mid-income nation.

“That said, we are not seeking aid. We seek seed investments, we seek buyers of the upcoming Sabah Smallholders 100 per cent Certified Sustainable Palm Oil product that pulls the supply chain in the right direction, we seek radical greens to not jeopardize our hard work, we seek reciprocal action from the world signaling we are not alone,” she said.

She stressed that while watching the world make high level pledges and continuing to reach out, hope and wait, Sabah is already in position and ready to trail-blaze the frontlines of action, and seeks courageous partners to run with it.

“Is there a bridge between the global and the local, the universal and the unique? Does COP care about the big ambitions of a small state already engaged in turning the tide? Can Sabah do it without the world engaged? Can the world do it if Sabah can’t,” she asked.