Are we rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic, or can we avoid the iceberg?

Two phrases, uttered during an event on Responsible Business in Singapore, jumped out at me to describe the impact of the private sector’s numerous, but ad hoc sustainability initiatives:

“We are rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic”, and

“We were going 100kph towards the cliff. What we are doing now slows us to 80kph, but we are still heading for the same cliff”.

If we are to avoid this metaphorical iceberg (or cliff), we need to start scaling up our actions, and quickly! This was a theme that resonated through three separate but related events recently…

Project visit in West Kalimantan

First, I visited Fauna & Flora International’s (FFI) project site in West Kalimantan, Indonesia with the Biodiversity and Agricultural Commodities Programme (BACP) team. The BACP programme is funding our work on the use of carbon-financing to protect high conservation value forest  in a landscape dominated by oil palm (which involves working with government, communities and companies). The representative from the International Finance Corporation who joined us during the visit was keen to know what was replicable and scalable to other palm oil companies or geographies. In this case, the answer included:

  • providing evidence of which Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) methods best suit each context;
  • a manual for other Indonesian palm oil companies showing how REDD can be used to manage high conservation value forest;
  • a draft district government regulation which will allow protection of high conservation value forest within a company’s concession lands. A common problem in Indonesia is that agricultural concessions must be used for agriculture. In order for a palm oil company to become Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified it must identify and manage high conservation value forest within its concession land, and under current regulations land that is not being used for the intended agricultural use can be reallocated by the government to another company who will convert it. This incentivises conversion not conservation.
Forests of Kalimantan. Credit: JPMoireras/FFI

Forests of Kalimantan. Credit: JPMoireras/FFI

10th Annual Roundtable Meeting on Sustainable Palm Oil

From Indonesia I went straight into the Smallholder Sharing and Learning Workshop, part of the Smallholder Working Group of which FFI is a member, at this year’s 10th Annual RSPO meeting (RT10), held in Singapore.

During the workshop there was much talk of Thailand, where the first independent smallholders in the world to sign up to the RSPO have now been certified. This was being heralded as an impressive example of engaging independent smallholders and interesting them in the benefits that certification for sustainability can represent (in terms of increased yields and good agricultural practices). In the workshop there were five questions for group discussion and I joined one that particularly interested me about how to scale and replicate smallholder initiatives; of course Thailand featured significantly.

The answer in this case is not to rely on on-going project funding, nor to solely rely on the government, but to look to a company’s palm oil processing mills. These mills benefit from improved smallholder yield and quality but can also support smallholders through existing training services. This means that mills are ideally placed to invest in the improvement of smallholder performance since they themselves benefit from any improvements – a win-win situation. What the Thai example did, with a large injection of funds from Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), was to show proof of concept for the improvement of smallholder practices through certification.

Fields of oil palm. Credit: JPMoireras/FFI

Fields of oil palm. Credit: JPMoireras/FFI

Responsible Business Forum

Just days later, Singapore hosted the Responsible Business Forum, where not one, but  two major organisations that promote the essential role of the private sector in sustainable development announced their relocation to Singapore: The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) for Business Coalition and the Business Council for Sustainable Development Singapore (BCSD Singapore). Again, the theme throughout the day was the urgent need to scale-up the good stuff we are doing.

One panellist highlighted the leadership role that companies can play but stressed that the private sector will not make the needed changes alone. There is urgency and need for governments and civil society to play a significant role too.

“If all the good pilot projects for sustainability were piled up, they still wouldn’t be enough for serious change”, another panellist noted. It was recommended that broader change could be more quickly affected through: responsible investment in the finance sector, corporate support of smallholder co-operatives and reform of government regulation. As was shown with Thai smallholders, pilot projects can demonstrate proof of concept, but they require backing by government regulation.

In Singapore for example, there is massive room for improvement in sustainability reporting. Last year, Ernst & Young highlighted that only a pitiful 13 companies had sustainability reports from a list of 800+ registered companies (of course some companies will likely have included environmental and social responsibility elements within company reporting). What effect would making reporting a mandatory requirement for companies based in Singapore have on land-use across Asia; particularly when the head-quarters of so many of the environmentally high-risk sectors are based there?

I am hopeful that Singapore’s recent efforts to bring the right mix of stakeholders together will contribute to catalysing constructive public-private partnerships and innovative solutions. Singapore is quickly becoming a focal point for the scaling-up of meaningful action on responsible business in the region. FFI will be well placed to contribute our global experience with environmental markets, the Natural Value Initiative and business & biodiversity partnerships, as well as being neighbours with other like-minded NGOs to discuss solutions and establish new collaborations.

I am optimistic that FFI’s presence in Singapore can allow us to be a part of what I hope is a genuine move in the right direction. Although it is early days, I have a frisson of excited anticipation that this might provide us with a route to safety away from the dreaded iceberg.