Forced Certification, Forced Labour
Imagine the NGO outcry if a company was, for its own benefit, forcing smallholder farmers to do something that was compromising their livelihoods. It would be on the front page of the papers after an outraged campaign launched around a pithy report with a snappy title that highlighted and shamed the company for its wickedness. Quite right too. That’s the role of NGOs, to highlight such wicked behaviour and do their own bit of forcing – forcing the company to change. Any company that puts families at risk should be castigated. Indeed, any organisation – company or otherwise - that damages smallholder livelihoods needs looking at.
And yet, apparently, there is an exception to this rule.
In the name of certification, it seems we’re all OK to not only turn a blind eye to such forced exploitation, but to applaud it as progress toward a better, more sustainable world. Hooray for us, bad luck for them.
In the not-so-distant past, I found myself visiting smallholder palm oil growers. There were interesting efforts being made to diversify crop production away from an over-reliance on their traditional palm monoculture, to increase their resilience in the face of a changing climate and changing markets. Much was being achieved as valuable fruits were being hand pollinated on trees growing intercropped with oil palm. A greater diversity of vegetables and other crops were being grown in home gardens, organically too I might add, to improve things. It was all very positive.
Later, I visited the cooperative mill that buys the smallholder fruits, processes them and sells them onto a refinery owned by a rather large palm oil industry company, a strong supporter of the RSPO certification scheme. The mill team decided they would share a presentation about their efforts to get the smallholders RSPO certified. There were some thousands of smallholders supplying them but only about one hundred had taken the plunge to join their RSPO program.
After a presentation outlining the way they were going about running training courses to “educate” the farmers – they’d seemed pretty educated when I’d met them earlier in the day – the floor was open to questions.
“What do you feel are the positive and negative aspects of certification for smallholders?”
I didn’t ask it myself but I thought it was a good question, right to the heart of the matter, respectfully put. Yet it seemed to cause a great deal of consternation. The RSPO project manager didn’t seem able to answer and there was much discussion amongst the mill company team and the representatives of the refinery. After about ten minutes, the vague answer was that there was a premium of $1.50/t paid to the smallholder. That was the benefit. On the down side, there were a lot of forms and papers to fill in, a lot of data to collect. This apparently was a real burden for the smallholders and they didn’t like it. That was, it seemed, the main reason why after a three year project, only about 100 farmers had signed up.
Further discussion revealed that despite the premium, it cost the farmers a lot more than $1.50/t to get and then stay certified. That didn’t take account of the opportunity cost to their livelihood – the lost income from more productive activities they might have been able to do had they not been filling in forms and gathering data for the RSPO certification requirements. I wondered why any of the farmers had signed up at all.
“We force them” came the response from the refinery company.
“You force them?”
“Yes, we force them to get certified. Our customers want to see that we’re trying to promote RSPO”.
Right. So…the refinery company was financing a project with the cooperative mill to get the smallholders that supply it RSPO certified. The refinery company, who sells into global markets and whose customers include such proponents of certification as Unilever, needs to show the world that they are doing their bit to bring everyone to the RSPO altar. That way, presumably, their customers would be pleased and continue to buy from them because, again presumably, they’d be hailed as heroes in their own right, on scorecards, like those published by NGOs like WWF, that rate companies almost solely on their efforts to promote certification schemes.
It’s a marketing project.
But what about the farmers?
Not to worry, the good news is that the refinery company, unhappy with the slow progress and presumably limited marketing opportunities only 100 or so farmers present, are sending more money to run an even bigger project to train and educate more farmers. If at first you don’t succeed - yell louder, speak more clearly! It’s not the message that’s at fault. It’s the silly uneducated farmers not understanding. More money needed to buy a megaphone.
“So, it costs the farmers more money than they get back and more importantly, it costs them valuable time that they could use to do something more productive for their overall livelihoods. You’re already forcing them against their best interests to do it and you’re going to make another project to ‘educate’ them even more? To take them away from their farms to sit in training courses? Why would you do that?”
Stony silence, uncomfortable smiles.
Time for a mill tour.
During the mill tour, the RSPO project manager, himself a smallholder palm oil grower, revealed that he wasn’t amongst the 100 brave souls that had been forced into RSPO. I assume he saw no benefit in it.
Why does anyone?
These farmers are effectively being used as forced labour to help their customers tell a fine marketing story to their own customers and so that the ultimate users of their oil can paint themselves as good, sustainable citizens. Perhaps to even win prizes for the joy of it?
There is nothing sustainable about this at all. More to the point, there’s nothing ethical about it whatsoever.
Why? Why do NGOs like WWF who so strongly support RSPO and other certification schemes that try to force themselves onto smallholders, keep doing this? Is it helping? It’s certainly not helping the smallholders. What benefit does it provide to the wider planet and, even if that is substantial (big question mark) why should smallholders carry the burden of delivering those benefits? Think of what good the refinery company could better do with its money. It could instead support greater crop diversification to bring greater resilience amongst its smallholder suppliers. Small amounts go a long way in such contexts. Climate change is already here and palm oil and other agricultural commodity yields are already being affected by changed weather. We need to build resilience now, not waste farmer’s precious time forcing them down an unproductive certification rabbit hole.
What makes anyone think that the most vulnerable players, the smallholders who reside at the deepest, most furthest recesses of global palm oil supply chains, should be forced to do anything that everyone knows is patently not good for them? We all know that these smallholder livelihoods are diminished by taking them away from productive valuable work and yet for our own selfish marketing needs – so we can show the statistics of the number of smallholders certified and hail it as evidence of the wonder, beauty and joy of our certification scheme – we force them to do it.
Help me understand the values in that?
There are no values in that and I would hope that having been awoken to such issues, NGOs and companies pushing RSPO or any other certification scheme on smallholders would think again. This is not a new finding. I’ve not magically stumbled onto a hidden gem of information in my travels. Everyone knows, the world over, that certification schemes present real problems for smallholders. We haven’t even discussed smallholders being excluded from supply chains because they’re not certified. Smallholders are leaving certification schemes because there’s no value for them in being certified, quite the contrary, but still the certification scheme proponents, those who believe certification is our saviour – or who make a load of money from it - keep forcing it down their throats.
We really should be ashamed. Most of all, we should roll up our sleeves and embark on a much more ethical approach of sitting with smallholders and working out together with them what sort of assistance they feel they could do with. And then deliver that. It’s not rocket science.
And those campaigners – many of them proponents of certification - ready to blast companies might instead have a long look in the mirror and realise that it’s not OK to have exceptions. NGOs and the pro-certification companies they promote should not be immune to criticism.
Forced labour is forced labour, be it to build a pipeline, a dam, to dig trenches or to fill in forms or collect data for a certification scheme so that someone else benefits.
It’s way beyond time to engage with smallholders on a more ethical, equal basis and, in the face of growing climate uncertainty, help them build their own resilience by working with them and for them, not for our own selfish selves.