In his closing speech at the 16th meeting of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), held in Sabah on Nov 15, Co-Chair Dato’ Carl Bek-Nielsen issued a call to industry to rise to the challenge of bringing about market transformation.

Just over 300 years ago, on a foggy night in 1707, English naval officer Admiral Cloudesley Shovell grounded four British warships on the rocks of Scilly. Two thousand lives were lost – they had fallen victim to faulty navigation.

Legend has it that a sailor had warned the Admiral earlier that day that his fleet was dangerously off course. Shovell hanged the sailor on the spot for mutiny. A few hours later, the ships ran aground and Shovell and his men perished in the cold waters. The incident was recorded as one of the greatest maritime disasters in British history.

However, this tragedy inspired a tremendous leap forward in terms of innovation. Just seven years later, it resulted in solving the conundrum of longitude. So, from 1714, both longitude and latitude could be determined, thus minimising the risk of faulty navigation.

Many of us who have come together here in Sabah see the RSPO as a journey of innovation by ‘sustainabilising’ an important commodity.

When consumers, NGOs and public opinion turned to the palm oil industry and said ‘your navigation is faulty – you are off course!’, we could have closed our eyes, blocked our ears and looked the other way. Or like Admiral Shovell, we could have hanged those who spoke up. However, those behind the formation of the RSPO acted differently – they listened.

They took the first difficult steps to acknowledge that change was not just required, it was necessary. Status quo was no longer tolerable. The rest is history, as they say, and here we are 14 years later, with more than 4,000 members committed to this multi-stakeholder approach.

But the RSPO must continue to evolve if it is to remain relevant and achieve market transformation, all the while stimulating the spirit of inclusivity and continuous improvement. With this in mind, I want to touch on the recent Principles & Criteria (P&C) review.

First, a vote of congratulations to all stakeholders who have been involved in this process, for much work, time and effort has gone into this – 18 face-to-face events in 13 countries, six physical Task Force meetings and over 11,500 individual stakeholder comments received.

What’s the net result?

Halting deforestation, protecting and conserving peatland, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening human rights, labour rights and obtaining of free, prior and informed consent – these are just some of the key improvements implemented in the draft P&C 2018.

However, much more needs to be done. To be credible and remain relevant, we must also be realistic and not shy away from the fact that we still have a long way to go if we’re to achieve market transformation.

For a moment I therefore wish to be the ‘canary in the coal mine’, so to say – and, like the sailor on Admiral Shovell’s ship, warn all on board this ‘RSPO ship’ that there are signs of us falling victim to faulty navigation.


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