Dr. Suresh is a specialist in sustainable supply chain development across various global agro-commodities and especially edible oils. Currently, he coordinates Solidaridad’s sustainability initiatives in agriculture especially in the edible oil supply chains in Asia.
He has held many positions in international and national organizations, focusing on the area of sustainability, agricultural research, extension, entrepreneurship, and policy advocacy for more than 20 years. He is having vast experience in developing and managing successful public-private partnerships models and innovative digital extension and knowledge transfer models across various countries in Asia.
Dr. Suresh has been instrumental in facilitating the development, ground implementation, market uptake, and strengthening processes of various national and international sustainability frameworks and standards for many agricultural commodities, especially edible oils. For the last decade, he has been key in the development and promotion of sustainability standards and multi-stakeholder platforms for soybean, palm oil, and many other oilseeds crops. He is actively involved in various multi-stakeholder and dialogue platforms for facilitating transformation towards building a more sustainable edible oil industry.
He was one of the key experts in the development of the Indian Palm Oil Sustainability (IPOS) framework, China Sustainable Soy Guidelines, Indian Standards for Sustainable Soy, and many other national and international sustainability standards. He has published many research papers in the journal of national repute and presented a paper in various national and international conferences.
1. Could you share with us how Solidaridad started in Indonesia’s palm oil industry? What are Solidaridad’s mission and goals in fostering a sustainable supply chain?
Indonesia is the largest producer and exporter of palm oil products in the world. Palm oil is one of Indonesia's primary export commodities. The palm oil sector provides direct and indirect jobs as well as a livelihood to millions of Indonesians. It is a core source of livelihood and employment for many rural communities, especially for more than 2.3 million smallholders. About 4.7 million hectares of oil palm plantation areas are grown on smallholder land, which accounts for around 41% of total plantation under oil palm in Indonesia.
The palm oil sector in Indonesia has achieved much in the past and can be rightly proud of its achievements. At the same time, some sustainability challenges are to be addressed. These challenges are related to smallholders' inclusion in the global sustainable palm oil supply chain, lack of knowledge and capacities as well as poor access to improved technologies, and obtaining a fair market price for sustainable palm oil. In addition to this, there are other concerns related to the environmental performance of the sector. Palm oil production is often associated with negative practices. Rather than a ban, we need sustainable palm oil production and consumption. The efforts are needed to reduce the negative impacts of oil palm production and to increase the positive impacts.
Solidaridad in Indonesia started its first project in 2012. In Indonesia, Solidaridad is facilitating interventions around both sustainable production and trade, which is in line with the government of Indonesia’s priorities and commitments towards sustainable palm oil. We are supporting smallholders and preparing them for Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO), with the engagement of the national government i. e. Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs, The Republic of Indonesia, Indonesian Palm Oil Board (DMSI), and many other stakeholders for facilitating sustainability in the sector. We are implementing many initiatives around smallholders’ support. These initiatives are related to increasing sustainable palm oil supply by supporting Indonesian smallholders.
In the year 2018, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was inked between Solidaridad, the Solvent Extractors Association (SEA) of India, and the Indonesian Palm Oil Board (DMSI). The MoU recognizes the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and the Indian Palm Oil Sustainability (IPOS) Framework as legitimate sustainability frameworks for palm oil production and trade between Indonesia and India. As part of MoU, a high-powered committee i. e. “India- Indonesia Joint Working Committee for Sustainable Palm Oil” has been formed to discuss the global and regional palm oil challenges and facilitate sustainable palm oil trade between two countries. The committee aims to promote the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil and Indian Palm Oil Sustainability Framework in India and other markets; besides it aims to create awareness on the health benefits of palm oil and enhance cooperation on trade-related matters.
2. What are Solidaridad’s mission and goals in fostering a sustainable supply chain?
At Solidaridad, we believe it is possible to transition to a truly sustainable global supply chain. We believe it is possible to meet the growing demand for palm oil by making better use of land already under cultivation. Yields of smallholders can be increased through better access to inputs, technologies, economies of scale, and finance. To achieve this, Solidaridad works with a range of actors to create more sustainable and inclusive supply chains. Our goal is to safeguard biodiversity and improve the livelihoods of smallholders by bringing innovative sustainability solutions to scale. Through better land use planning and support at both a policy and market level, we believe palm oil can play a vital role in providing global food security for millions while protecting local ecosystems.
We reclaim sustainability in the palm oil sector in three ways
Prosperous: Under this, we promote increased productivity of existing lands and improved livelihoods, living and working conditions of smallholders and workers through better farm management, access to inputs, and improved and promotion of inclusive business ownership models. A large part of our focus lies in raising the yields of smallholder farmers on existing land through implementing better practices. To bring our interventions to scale, we develop innovative technologies such as digital applications, which allow for rapid and targeted distribution of information to farmers.
Balance With Nature: we aim to make healthy eco-systems within the oil palm sector. We address ecological poverty through building resilience against climate change, healthy, regenerative, circular, pollution - and waste-free production.
Inclusivity: as part of promoting inclusivity, we address political poverty. We work on creating civic space and voices of youth, indigenous, and minorities as well as gender equity.
National Platforms & Initiatives
We work with major palm oil procuring and consuming countries in Asia to promote sustainable production and trade. We contribute towards the establishment of nationwide initiatives and solutions with the objectives to reach maximum impact. We work with governments to develop policy instruments that support the development of a sustainable palm oil sector. Engaging a range of influential stakeholders, including the government, is key to driving national-level improvements.
We cooperate with the Indonesian and Malaysian governments through the Indonesian and Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil Initiatives i.e. ISPO and MSPO, similarly in India together with the Solvent Extractors’ Association of India (SEA) and Solidaridad with the support of the Indian Institute of Oil Palm Research (IIOPR), SOPOPRAD and many industry stakeholders developed India's standards for sustainable palm oil (IPOS). IPOS is well adapted to the Indian context both in terms of smallholders' and consumers' perspectives. In China, we are in process of developing its standard for sustainable palm oil. We support all of these national initiatives to develop robust mechanisms to demonstrate their impact. Mutual recognition among national sustainability standards i. e. IPOS- ISPO, and ISPO-MSPO are facilitated to foster cooperation among producing and consuming countries and to promote the production and trade of sustainable palm oil.
3. Solidaridad has continued to strengthen its initiatives on climate change and came out with three landscape programs focusing on reducing carbon emissions. Could you share with us the new programs that were introduced in Indonesia?
Solidaridad promotes a landscape approach which is around the promotion of national initiatives and sustainability standards which provides a potential opportunity to align with national priorities and commitments. These standards provide the best platform to facilitate national consensus and actions towards addressing ground issues and related sustainability challenges. National standards like ISPO, MSPO, and IPOS; as part of national sustainability initiatives help the local governments and local industry to participate in a sustainability discourse more actively and as a result, lead to market transformation. At Solidaridad, we call these standards fourth-generation standards as these facilitate inclusive and continuous improvements while enhancing the sustainability performance of the sector and achieving compliance with applicable national and international laws and regulations.
Through facilitating multi-stakeholder platforms among the government, private sector, and civil society actors, we enable key landscape stakeholders to set joint agendas around different issues e. g. climate change, reducing carbon emissions, etc. Stakeholders in the landscape are best placed to make their values explicit and prioritize actions. This process of building partnerships, commitments, and overall coordination of efforts is the core of our landscape approach.
As part of climate action, Solidaridad is promoting the National Initiatives for Sustainable Climate-Smart Oil Palm Smallholders (NI-SCOPS). The program supports smallholders to implement climate-smart agriculture (CSA). This is aimed at creating thriving and resilient oil palm landscapes, improving community livelihoods, reducing GHG emissions from deforestation, and making farms, forests, and communities resilient to climate change. The NI-SCOPS program has been designed as a new mechanism to provide tangible support to enable palm oil-producing countries to measurably contribute to sustainable development goals. The program supports local governments and other stakeholders to improve the productivity and incomes of smallholders and workers, and at the same time protect and restore valuable natural resources in the palm oil-producing landscapes. It also envisions making smallholders led palm oil supply chain more economically robust, socially inclusive, and resilient to climate change.
The NI-SCOPS is being implemented in selected states, provinces, and regions of four countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Ghana, and Nigeria. The program also contributes towards cooperation with major palm oil-producing countries. The initiatives under NI-SCOPS are public-sector partnership programs, co-owned by national and local government actors. The ‘Key Performance Goals' for the National Initiatives correspond to the three dimensions of Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) as defined by FAO: livelihoods, climate adaptation, and mitigation. Overall, the program contributes towards the global climate and sustainable development goals.
4. Technology has been influential in the palm oil industry and especially so in recent years. How has Solidaridad been utilizing or harnessing technology to drive its objectives?
Solidaridad has been utilizing technology on smallholders' profiles and land mapping to support its work in improving the livelihood and sustainability of smallholders. We use innovative digital solutions these include training app, plantation mapping using GPS devices and drones, etc. To address barriers in this pandemic challenge, we have been applying digital tools for training modules on good agriculture practices. The digital extension tool is being developed to introduce efficient and cost-effective processes, solutions, and systems for preparing smallholders for sustainability certifications. It is an integrated tool for self-assessment to gauge sustainability levels of smallholders, identifying risks, planning, effective implementation of practices, and continual improvement. Furthermore, to support the traceability agenda, we use a traceability mobile tool for efficient data management for smallholders.
The traceability model is being developed with three types of functions: a) Training application; b) Self-assurance process; c) Traceability from the oil palm producer to the consumer. The traceability tool facilitates a mechanism to make data work for the oil palm farmer's improvement, traceability, and fairer returns for the farmers. In other words, it lays down the rules for making data-related practices in the oil palm supply chain. It creates a basis for next-generation "beyond certification" sustainability frameworks, driven by farmers' self-assessment and continual improvement.
5. The Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) is recognized as a legitimate sustainability framework. In your opinion, what other initiatives can help address the challenges in adhering to sustainability practices especially amongst smallholders?
Cost, complicated paper-works, lack of adoption of sustainability practices, and low uptake of sustainable palm oil are among many challenges faced by smallholders to comply with certification. To address those challenges, we have been conducting farmer field schools on good plantation practices and facilitating them to establish smallholder groups/cooperatives to increase the social capital of burden-sharing and peer learning.
We are preparing smallholders for implementation of Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and introducing innovative digital tools which help the smallholders to self-assess their performances against sustainability parameters, provides them access to training materials and knowledge. Furthermore, through the technology application, we support them to fulfill the traceability and transparency agenda.
The other recommendations are as follows
Increased market uptake of sustainable palm oil to incentivize the smallholders for the adoption of ISPO
Greater awareness about sustainable palm oil as well as awareness about the goodness of palm oil among consumers need to be created
6. What are some of the challenges that Solidaridad has faced during the pandemic? And what do you foresee in 2022 as we slowly emerge from it?
COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the trade of palm oil. The demand, export, and imports are dropped and the work at plantations has also been affected due to lockdowns in the producing countries. The extension support to farmers has been affected to some extent however the digital tools promoted by Solidaridad have played a key role in reaching out to farmers during the lockdown period. These tools are found to be very effective in the transfer of knowledge and technologies among farmers. We expect that with increasing exposure and familiarity with digital technologies, smallholders will be likely to be more capable and efficient in using technology to communicate their sustainability efforts to the world.
7. Solidaridad has vast experience in fighting poverty and advocating sustainable production for the last fifty years. What are your views now that some people started to realize the importance of sustainability efforts and what is still lacking?
The world still sees ecology and economy agenda are two different opposite directions. Especially in this slowing-down economy due to pandemics, the environmental agenda is pushed to a later priority. However, in addition to this devastating pandemic situation, more and more natural disasters are also happening. For example, in Indonesia, in early 2020, significant floods stroke several areas in Indonesia which people acknowledge due to upstream deforestation in the past and conversion of downstream water catchment areas. As people are ignorant and forgetful easily, this message needs resounding and decision-makers need advocating persistently.
Followings are our views
Lack of awareness among consumers about sustainability and affects the uptake of sustainable palm oil
The engagement with local laws, national standards, and mandatory schemes would help in embedding sustainability locally
Government intervention from both producing and consuming countries may play a key role in the uptake of Sustainable Palm Oil
Creating shared responsibility between producing and consuming countries because of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and unsustainable practices
Address the issues of duplication due to multiple standards and lower the compliance costs
Traceability in the supply chain has to be improved
Focus on differentiated, sustainable high-value products