A Chat About No Deforestation Palm Oil with GAR's Jesslyne Widjaja

A Chat About No Deforestation Palm Oil with GAR's Jesslyne Widjaja

Golden Agri Resources’ Jesslyne Widjaja brings honesty, transparency and a clear vision for the palm oil industry. I caught up with her recently in Singapore.

Jesslyne Widjaja is Chair of Golden Agri Resources’ (GAR) Sustainability Committee. It’s no small responsibility. GAR is Indonesia’s largest palm oil grower, the second largest in the world, and owns more than half a million hectares of plantation estates.

Jesslyne is young, bright and highly educated. It’s fair to say that young, bright, highly educated women are not common in the palm oil industry, not impossible to find, just not ‘everyday’. Jesslyne and other young, new generation, emerging leaders represent the future of the palm oil industry.

I was catching up with Jesslyne so that we could update each other on how we thought GAR was doing. GAR became a TFT member back in September 2010 and our relationship has been something of a roller coaster ever since. Born in the storm of a Greenpeace campaign, our relationship flourished initially as the company took a strong lead in developing and announcing the palm oil industry’s first ever No Deforestation Forest Conservation Policy (FCP). Launched in Feb 2011, GAR’s FCP was a stunning series of commitments to protect forests and biodiversity and to respect the rights of indigenous and local communities. GAR jumped away to a strong start in implementing its policy and especially took a strong lead in work to define ‘degraded’ forests. In so doing, GAR deserves great credit for having played a major role in introducing the concept of ‘High Carbon Stock’ forest to the industry’s lexicon.

In time, GAR’s FCP implementation started to founder as the company grappled with competing demands. Calls from shareholders and analysts to plant more land tangled with its FCP commitments to protect forests. Its customers’ increasing calls for No Deforestation palm oil backed by pressure from NGOs butted against Government of Indonesia legal requirements to plant entire concession areas. Overlaying everything was the need to deal with past community conflicts while striving to avoid creating new ones through FCP implementation. GAR staff found their heads spinning.

There was much grappling within GAR and between GAR and TFT teams. Eventually, the partnership ran out of steam and in May this year we suspended GAR’s TFT membership.

Jesslyne had become engaged in our discussions in the back end of 2014 as she was tasked with the job of getting FCP implementation back on track. When GAR’s TFT membership was suspended it fell to Jesslyne to reinvigorate GAR’s FCP implementation and our relationship in her role as Chair of the newly formed Sustainability Committee.

She’s done a great job. In fact, so great that TFT today announced that it is re-engaging with GAR. That doesn’t mean that everything is perfect, but we’ve certainly seen GAR’s commitment reinvigorated and applied in substantive action through the lead Jesslyne has taken in her role.

I captured part of my discussion with Jesslyne for our TFT Earthworm podcast. You can listen to it below, or find all TFT Earthworm podcasts here. As you’ll hear in the podcast, Jesslyne and I spoke together before this reengagement decision had been taken so you’ll understand that we tip-toed around the issue somewhat.

What really struck me when listening to Jesslyne was her very open, transparent and honest account of where things didn’t go so well and what needs to be done to turn things around. There is no spin, no greenwashing, we just had a frank and honest chat. We touch on the problems with the haze and Jesslyne shares her vision for GAR but also for the palm oil industry in general.

After our discussion, I was left feeling more positive for the future of the industry. I hope you will be too.

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