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Sabah: A Global Leader in Sustainable Palm Oil

KOTA KINABALU: Sabah's production of palm oil was recorded at 4.65 million tonnes last year amounting to 6.2% of the world's palm oil production. Contributing about 17.6% or RM787.50 million of the state's estimated revenue this year, palm oil is one of the most important economic sector that provides jobs and livelihood assurances to millions of Sabahans. Palm oil as a commodity is influenced by the vagaries of the rise and fall of prices in the global markets. It is also subjected to environmental criticisms as the palm sector is associated with massive deforestation and loss of wildlife habitats including the iconic orangutan. 

As a forward-looking government, the state has embarked on a policy initiative to protect the resilience of the palm oil sector as the foundation of economy and sustainable development of Sabah. This is through the implementation of both the Jurisdictional Certification of Sustainable Palm Oil (JCSPO) and the Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) certification concurrently within Sabah. Through this initiative, the Sabah JCSPO will remain as the ultimate goal, while pursuing the MSPO certification as an essential first step towards achieving the internationally recognised Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) standard. 

Central to Sabah JCSPO is the jurisdictional approach which provides a structured approach to establish wider commitments from stakeholders to sustainable palm oil practices across the state. The initiative is a 10-year plan which aims to produce 100 per cent RSPO certified sustainable palm oil by 2025. To date, about 26 per cent of palm oil produced in Sabah are RSPO-certified. 

“By officially implementing the JCSPO initiative, this will help the State government address deforestation in the oil palm supply chain by putting in place strategies, policies and measures to safeguard them. This is a crucial step in positioning Sabah and laying the foundation for the state as the global leader in sustainable palm oil,” said Sophia Lim, Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer WWF-Malaysia.

The multi-stakeholder initiative is intended to achieve no loss of High Conservation Value (HCV) and High Carbon Stock (HCS) forests for all oil palm in Sabah; enable zero-conflict in oil palm production landscapes in Sabah; and strengthen smallholder sustainability and uplift local livelihoods by 2025. 

Jurisdictional approach to palm oil certification

A jurisdiction refers to any region with politically and/or administratively defined boundaries. In the context of palm oil production, it will be the jurisdiction that obtains certification, and palm oil that is produced within its boundaries. The jurisdictional approach seeks to align interests and coordinate actions among governments, businesses, local communities, and NGOs toward shared conservation, supply chain sustainability, and green development goals. 

In order to lead and implement the JCSPO process, the Jurisdictional Certification Steering Committee (JCSC) was established in 2016. It is co-chaired by Sabah Forestry Department and the Natural Resources Office, while other steering committee members are representatives from the government, private sector and civil society, including WWF-Malaysia.

One of WWF-Malaysia's contributions towards the realisation of the JCSPO in Sabah is through the Sabah Landscapes Programme, supporting the certification of 70,000 hectares of middle-sized and small-holders in Tawau, Tabin and Lower Sugut landscapes.

“WWF-Malaysia has set up a dedicated Sustainable Palm Oil Team to provide technical support to growers located within the landscapes to form growers' groups and subsequently guide them to undergo the group certification process of RSPO.” 

“Through the living landscapes approach, we also work on advancing sustainable palm oil to include elements of conserving orangutan and Bornean elephants as well supporting the management of protected areas and forest reserves within our landscapes,” said Sophia.

Frederick Kugan, Chief Conservator of Forests from the Sabah Forestry Department stressed that the jurisdictional approach will not only support the sustainability of the palm oil industry in the future, but will also be able to address environmental and social issues faced by the sector.

“The JCSPO is a very important initiative to balance out conservation and sustainable development, and certification of palm oil production is necessary, especially in addressing issues for example chemical use and labour standards.”

“Having a jurisdictional approach is very important. It is not sufficient to safeguard the wildlife population, forest resources, or ecosystem services by themselves. So we need a larger perspective, and I think we have done much to achieve great conservation efforts in Sabah that could in fact benefit other sectors, especially palm oil,” said Frederick. 

For the future of  Sabah’s forest and wildlife 

The monoculture nature of oil palm plantations means that they tend not to support species that are dependent on forest environment, like the orangutan. As such, forest patches within plantation landscapes are important as orangutan and other wildlife use them for survival as well as travel between adjacent forest areas.

The jurisdictional approach will create a shared vision around balancing production with conservation. This is achieved by analyzing a landscape holistically and determining which areas would be most suitable for production, protection, or restoration.

“The orangutans need good forest habitat to survive. However, some of them are found in isolated forest patches scattered within oil palm plantations. Connectivity, through wildlife corridors that link these patches of forest to a wider forest habitat is key to orangutan survival at oil palm plantation landscapes, especially in the lowlands of Sabah.”

“The JCSPO which encompases a more holistic approach is a real hope to ensure a brighter future for the species in Sabah,” said Augustine Tuuga, director of Sabah Wildlife Department.

Apart from orangutan, Bornean elephants often face problems from the palm oil plantations where human–elephant conflict incident exists. The holistic approach offered by JCSPO provides the platform for plantation companies and local communities to find solutions together and therefore allows the gentle giants to co-exist with humans and development. It is when the giants are squeezed into small areas without food and water that they will rampage on crops for their needs. 

Towards this end, the Sabah JCSPO has been globally recognized as a pioneering model to address deforestation from the palm oil supply chain. The jurisdictional programme implemented by Sabah will now create a new wave of change and pave the way for a future where sustainable practices will become the industry standard. 

Frederick hopes that through this initiative, it will now provide the market and others with a valuable roadmap toward sustainable change and hopefully inspire other regions to follow suit.

“This is just the beginning. There is a lot more work to be done and we hope that the Sabah JCSPO will continue to receive support from all our stakeholders, towards 100% RSPO as well as MSPO certification by 2025 as per the circular issued by the State Secretary recently,” he added.

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