At first glance, we might think that the two have nothing in common. With the bad rap on oil palm as the cause of deforestation, if there is anything that oil palm managers have to do with biodiversity, some might unfairly remark - it's biodiversity depletion!
But this is precisely what Biodiversity for Busy Managers (BFBM) is trying to change. Held recently on the 23rd and 24th of March, 2010 in March, the training workshop saw participants from Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan coming together to learn how to manage biodiversity in their plantations. With the growing international demand for sustainable palm oil, more companies are recognizing the economic pay-offs in growing sustainable oil palm and at the same time reducing their negative impact on the environment, wildlife and communities in the surrounding area.
BFBM, a brainchild of Wild Asia with the support from the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, is an initiative to inspire and educate plantation managers to start incorporating biodiversity principles into their plantation management to protect their natural areas from depletion, and at the same time, preparing the plantations to undergo the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification process.
Dr. Reza Azmi, Executive Director of Wild Asia explained, "Biodiversity for Busy Managers is a culmination of thoughts of what we have seen in the plantations over the last 5 to 6 years by conducting surveys and working with plantation staff. We felt it was really time to pull it all together and to start working with these plantation managers, the people on the ground and people who are trying to design conservation programmes."
Recognizing a shift in the way the industry is developing, Dr. Reza believes that the time is now to start thinking about how to go about implementing biodiversity in oil palm plantations and addressing the various impeding issues. "What has been good is that 4 to 5 years ago, people didn't really have anybody to educate them but some of them had taken the initiative to go out and do it themselves. Now, listening to the participants' plans of what they might want to put into place, I'm actually quite excited that I think some of the core bits of learning are easily grasped by this group of people."
One of the participants, Mrs. Ruzita Abdul Gani, an RSPO auditor, added that "the workshop will be able to assist those who have not started implementing RSPO's Principles and Criteria and for those who have already started implementation, it can help them improve further and get more knowledge through the sharing of experiences (with other managers)."
Wild Asia and Biodiversity
Wild Asia began working with the oil palm sector about 5 to 6 years ago, providing advisory support and conducting field assessments to plantation companies. Wild Asia's mission is to engage the businesses that have an impact on natural areas, steering them towards sustainability and encouraging environmental and social stewardship. Equipped with years of technical experience and supported by international standards such as core labour standards, RSPO, Forest Stewardship Council among others, Wild Asia's advisors and associates consist of individuals and field-based naturalists with various backgrounds - be it in nature conservation, social developments or education.
As an experienced independent group, Wild Asia works hand-in-hand with plantation managers towards the implementation of the RSPO Principle and Criteria and preparing companies for RSPO certification. Sustainable plantation practices are not yet a norm in the oil palm industry and for some, biodiversity is a new concept which at times is confusing and shrouded with misconceptions.
"When they first started off doing this kind of work, people were very confused about some of the concepts. After all, these men are trained to plant, not to be biodiversity managers and so, all of these things were new and we could see that although we were telling people ideas, there was some lack of comprehension there. And so what's been great about this workshop is that people are now starting to think about it, and that it is actually not that complicated." Dave Bakewell, Wild Asia Associate explained. Workshop participant Ms. Siti Rozdhiyah Shahfri found the workshop to be very helpful as biodiversity relates to her work with FELDA. "From this workshop I've learned about more practical ways in managing biodiversity and it taught me to think out of the box and to embrace the environment because we share the space with other wildlife such as the orangutans and elephants and we need to find out a solution to co-exist," said Ms. Siti.
B4BM has provided a good platform for plantation managers to start engaging with experts in biodiversity and other players in the industry. Based on feedback from the participants, it is clear that the industry has a long way to go, as viable and effective case studies and best examples are still lacking. In addition, many managers may face difficulties influencing or encouraging other shareholders to jump on the sustainability bandwagon. Dr. Reza believes that one of the first steps to take is to start empowering staff and managers to have the confidence in communicating with the companies' decision makers. Mr. Bakewell added that fundamentally, once the industry gets more involved in addressing biodiversity issues, there would be more and more practical examples that can be used as models.
As other industries apart from agriculture have started paving their way towards more sustainable practices and with heightened consumer awareness, it is imperative for the oil palm sector to get involved with efforts to reduce their impact on the environment and natural areas. The mindset and attitude of the plantation sector must move beyond consideration to implementation, and recognize the economic potential of sustainability.
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