- Ecuador is the sixth largest palm oil producing country in the world and the second largest in Latin America. While most of its oil palm plantations have been developed on degraded land, an estimated 6 percent of cultivated area has come at the expense of natural forest. Conservationists worry this will increase as the country’s palm oil sector continues to grow.
- In attempts to reign in harmful palm oil industry practices, Ecuador’s Ministry of Agriculture reactivated its Jurisdictional RSPO Certification plan in March 2018. The RSPO stands for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and is the world’s leading palm oil certification body.
- Ecuador’s jurisdictional plan aims to certify entire provinces rather than focus certification efforts on individual companies and plantations, which has tended to be the norm in other parts of the world. Jurisdictional RSPO is also seen as a way to help the country’s palm oil sector gain better access to world markets, which are increasingly requiring sustainability certification for their products.
- The plan has been lauded by organizations such as the United Nations REDD program. But some worry it may not be applicable in some parts of Ecuador, such as its Amazonian region, and that a large-scale jurisdictional approach may be vulnerable to political turnover.
Ecuador is the sixth largest palm oil producing country in the world and the second largest in Latin America. While most of its oil palm plantations have been developed on degraded land, an estimated 6 percent of cultivated area has come at the expense of natural forest. Conservationists worry this will increase as the country’s palm oil sector continues to grow.
In attempts to reign in harmful palm oil industry practices, Ecuador’s Ministry of Agriculture reactivated its Jurisdictional RSPO Certification plan in March 2018. The RSPO stands for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and is the world’s leading palm oil certification body.
Ecuador’s jurisdictional plan aims to certify entire provinces rather than focus certification efforts on individual companies and plantations, which has tended to be the norm in other parts of the world. Jurisdictional RSPO is also seen as a way to help the country’s palm oil sector gain better access to world markets, which are increasingly requiring sustainability certification for their products.
The plan has been lauded by organizations such as the United Nations REDD program. But some worry it may not be applicable in some parts of Ecuador, such as its Amazonian region, and that a large-scale jurisdictional approach may be vulnerable to political turnover.
Ecuador’s oil palm industry has taken another step forward in committing to a jurisdictional RSPO system, seeking to transform the entire sector by making it cleaner and more sustainable. But many wonder if a commitment to RSPO is enough, considering the industry’s questionable reputation in some parts of the country and its encroachment on new areas in the Amazon rainforest.
Oil palm is considered an important crop worldwide, as its fruit produces palm oil, one of the most ubiquitous oils on the market. It’s used in everything from margarine, ice cream, makeup, certain lubricants and fabrics, and is a popular biodiesel. At the same time, it has drawn international ire for its association with mass deforestation, land grabs and labor abuses on large plantations.
In attempts to reign in these industry practices, Ecuador’s Ministry of Agriculture reactivated its Jurisdictional RSPO Certification plan in March 2018. The RSPO, which stands for Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, is the world’s leading palm oil certification body. It consists of a set of environmental and social criteria that aim to make oil palm plantations more sustainable, such as committing to zero deforestation in primary forest regions, reducing chemical inputslike pesticides and fertilizers, making industry practices more transparent, and ensuring that international labor laws are abided by.
Ecuador’s jurisdictional plan aims to certify entire provinces rather than focus certification efforts on individual companies and plantations, which has tended to be the norm in other parts of the world. The motivation behind a jurisdictional approach is that it would better allow regional governments to improve the welfare of small farmers who grow oil palm while tamping down environmental destruction and increasing the efficiency of palm oil fruit-to-product supply chains.
Ecuador’s plan has been in the making for years but was stalled in 2017 after the presidential election brought about changes to the government.
As part of the reactivation plan, Minister of Agriculture Ruben Flores also signed into creation the Inter-Institutional Committee for the Monitoring of Sustainable Palm (CISPS) – a body that brings together all actors in the oil palm sector, including the private and public spheres as well as civil society, with the aim of creating and implementing sustainable growing models.
Various actors will participate in this group, such as key industry players like the National Association of Palm Oil Growers (ANCUPA) and the Foundation of Promotion of Oil Palm Exports (FEDAPAL), the Ministries of Agriculture and the Environment, environmental organizations like World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Conservation International, and local governments and farming cooperatives. As the group is only a few months old, they have yet to lay out details about their strategies.
Ecuador is one of the first countries to develop jurisdictional RSPO certification approaches, and is being praised worldwide. The United Nations REDD program, which aims to curtail greenhouse gas emissions by reducing deforestation, has commended the creation of CISPS and “the motivation for the palm oil sector to rebrand, rethink, and reinvent itself.”
“I think all countries are going a bit crazy in looking at what Ecuador is doing,” said Angela Alvarez, an oil palm specialist with the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.
Why jurisdictional RSPO?
One of the main reasons to align with RSPO standards is for better access to world markets, which are increasingly requiring this certification for their products, according to Cesar Loaiza, Executive Director for FEDAPAL.
“Having or not having the certification is the difference between being able to sell your product or not,” Loaiza told Mongabay at his office in Quito.
Ecuador’s palm oil sector has also been growing rapidly over the years, increasing by an average of 8 percent per year between 2010 and 2016. This prompted the Ministry of Foreign Trade to call oil palm “one of the most dynamic non-oil and non-traditional industries in the country.”
Although it’s a small country, Ecuador is the sixth largest oil palm producer in the world and the second largest in Latin America, according to the latest numbers from industry analysis organizations Oil World, Fedepalma and FEDAPAL.
More than 58 percent of Ecuador’s palm oil is exported, the vast majority to Colombia and Venezuela. But Alvarez said that as those markets change due to Venezuela’s increasing political instability and the growth of Colombia’s domestic production, Ecuador will need to look for new markets.
Among these are the European Union (EU), one of the world’s largest consumers of palm oil and the third largest importer of Ecuador’s supply. In 2017, the EU approved a policy stating that all palm oil imports into the region will have to be RSPO certified by 2020, which includes committing to zero deforestation.
According to WWF, one of the NGOs involved in monitoring and implementing jurisdictional RSPO certifications in Ecuador, ensuring zero deforestation is one of its main concerns.
“The WWF does NOT support the expansion of oil palm in Ecuador,” Jorge Rivas, the National Coordinator of the forests and fresh water program with WWF-Ecuador, told Mongabay via email. “We believe that the increase in production of palm oil should happen by increasing the yield of existing crops or in the realization of new crops in already-intervened areas like abandoned pastures and not in the expansion of the surface of new crops in tropical forest areas.”
But Rivas did not provide details about how they plan to ensure this, particularly in the Amazon where production has been expanding into natural rainforest. According to the latest oil palm census released in 2018, the Ecuadorian Amazon saw the third largest increase in production area in the country, compared to the previous census in 2005. In total, the area devoted to oil palm cultivation in the Amazonian provinces of Sucumbios and Orellana grew from 15,186 hectares to 33,802 hectares between 2005 and 2017.
Proponents say one of the benefits of the jurisdictional RSPO model, as opposed to individual certifications, is that it makes it easier for small producers to be certified, a process that can be quite long and costly when it comes to acquiring all the necessary permits.
However, critics say jurisdictional conservation methods for any crop can be complicated, since political turnover means long-term commitment by the government is not ensured. Others say this method doesn’t uphold the highest standards, which are reduced so that as many actors as possible can reach its baseline standards.
More than 89 percent of Ecuador’s oil palm farmers are small landholders with less than 50 hectares (however, this only represents 40 percent of total oil palm surface area). According to the Ministry of Agriculture, both large companies and the government will offer financial and technical support to small farmers to make this transition.
Expansion in the Amazon
While many in the conservation field are lauding Ecuador’s jurisdictional approach to RSPO certification, others express reservations. Luke Weiss, territory and cultural revival coordinator with the NGO Amazon Frontlines, said jurisdictional RSPO certification could be great. However, he’s skeptical about how it will be applied in the Amazon rainforest, where deforestation and contamination is normal practice.
The district of Shushufindi in Ecuador’s northern Amazonian province of Sucumbíos has seen some of the country’s largest expansions in oil palm cultivation over the last few years. According to the 2018 census, oil palm cropland here has increased by 8,094 hectares since 2005 for a total of more than 17,690 hectares, which is roughly the size of 24,775 soccer fields. The region is considered the heart of the oil palm industry in Ecuador’s Amazon.
However, it appears little of this expansion has come at the cost of natural forest so far. According to the same 2018 census, only 6 percent of all the new oil palm cultivation area in the country had forest cover directly before planting. The remaining 94 percent was planted on land that had been previously degraded from agriculture or other human activity.
But Weiss warns that rainforest deforestation for palm oil has still happened in Ecuador. He points to a 10,000-hectare area of palm oil plantations near Shushufindi that he says was cut from natural forest some 30 years ago by the Palmeras de Ecuador, the largest palm oil company in the region.
Weiss says palm oil companies continue to try to convince local farmers and indigenous communities to cut down forest for oil palm plantations. He claims Palmeras de Ecuador convinced the Siekopai (or Secoya) community of San Pablo in the district of Shushufindi to convert portions of their land to oil palm and even offered to back them in their efforts to get a loan. As a result, they received a loan from Corporacion Financiera Nacional (CFN) for over $240,000, and some 19 families allegedly cut down around 173 hectares of primary forest in order to grow oil palm.
But in 2011, the Ministry of the Environment slapped the Siekopai community with a $375,000 fine for cutting down trees without a permit, putting them permanently in debt. Even though both Palmeras de Ecuador and CFN accompanied the community through the extensive loan process and crop creation, neither of them suggested that a permit was necessary, Weiss said, leading him to question their motives and business methods.
“Everyone knew they weren’t doing the permit process, but just let them [cut down the trees]; it seemed to be a big trap that they kind of fell into,” Weiss said.
Mongabay reached out to Palmeras de Ecuador for comment, but the company did not provide a response by press time.
The Ecuadorian Amazon is attractive to palm oil companies for two big reasons. For one, the region has the perfect climate for cultivation, with lots of rain and consistent year-round temperatures between 25 and 28 degrees Celsius. The region has also, so far, escaped a deadly oil palm disease known as PC, or Pudricion del Cogollo (Spanish for bud rot), which has wiped out over 20,000 hectares of oil palm in other popular growing regions along the western coast. This has forced companies to look to other areas with similar environmental conditions away from already-contaminated regions.
But even though PC has yet to make an appearance in plantations in the Ecuadorian Amazon, fear of it is still prompting oil palm farmers in the region to continue to apply large amounts of pesticide to their crops. Manuel Bayon, a critical geographer and Amazon specialist, says that because of pesticide and fertilizer use, oil palm has long been contaminating local water sources, especially the Shushufindi River, where “for over 30 years … they have been draining agrochemical residue from some 10,000 hectares of Palmeras de Ecuador’s crop,” he wrote in a 2012 study.
This river also runs through the western border of Siekopai territory, and many people still rely on its fish for food.
“What’s really common, a couple times each year you have massive fish deaths in that river, with the source being the African palm plantation,” Weiss said. “Palm has been known as being a lot heavier on fertilizers and chemicals and pesticides than anything else that’s grown large scale here.”
In many ways, growing oil palm makes economic sense for the Siekopai community, Weiss said, since a family with 10 hectares can make up to $600 a month – almost double the minimum wage of $366 a month.
Despite the challenges ahead, many are hopeful that jurisdictional RSPO certification could bring industry reform to the area and pave a more sustainable, equitable future for Ecuador’s palm oil sector.
This story first appeared on Mongabay
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