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Proforest contributes to soil quality considerations for sustainable palm oil

This month, our Southeast Asia Regional Director, Surin Suksuwan, represented Proforest at a workshop exploring soil quality challenges in Malaysian and Indonesian oil palm plantations.

The workshop, organised by Crops For the Future (CFF) and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), took place in Semenyih, Malaysia, and brought together soil scientists and microbiologists, representatives from the palm oil industry and civil society. It was the first step made by a new collaborative research programme, funded by the UK government’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) programme, which aims to identify how better understanding of soil quality and soil functioning can contribute to efforts for a more sustainable oil palm sector.

During the workshop, Surin offered practical insights into the issues confronted by auditors who are required to assess or monitor the compliance of companies with sustainable palm oil commitments. These commitments can be associated with a companies’ own policies, or certification systems such as the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) and Indonesia Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO). Since certification systems increasingly incorporate the High Conservation Value (HCV) approach and the High Carbon Stock (HCS) Approach, attention was also paid to soil criteria within these approaches.

Each of these standards incorporates various soil quality considerations, including soil erosion, soil degradation, and definitions of problem, marginal and fragile soils such as peat. However, these manifold, overlapping and sometimes conflicting considerations can be problematic. Terminologies can be confusing, and definitions of peat, marginal and fragile soils can contradict one another across the different standards. Furthermore, conflicting data can mean that mapping different categories of soil is difficult.

Surin highlighted how these challenges can make it difficult for practitioners to apply standards accurately, and risk unsuitable soils being identified for palm oil plantations. This, in turn, could have significant consequences affecting the productivity and yield of plantations themselves, as well as the health of valuable ecosystems and wildlife nearby. Soil scientists need to look for practical solutions to define the different soil terminologies and how they can be applied in the context of sustainability initiatives.

Overall, the workshop was a valuable opportunity for Proforest to contribute to discussions of an important, yet often overlooked, component of palm oil sustainability: soil. The challenges explored will be fundamental to informing future efforts for sustainable palm oil initiatives in Southeast Asia.

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Photo credit: Crops for the Future 
Published 23.03.2017