In 2011, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), a global environmental group, launched a pilot project to help 349 Indonesian palm oil farmers reduce the environmental impact of their farms. The initiative was a first step towards ushering more than one million small-scale palm oil farmers into a new era of forest-friendly production that would help to save rain forests across Sumatra, Borneo, and other Southeast Asian islands. While some large plantations had already agreed to engage in sustainable practices, designed to improve yields while reducing social and environmental impacts, about 40% of Indonesia’s production came from growers who cultivated small plots—often in remote areas. Aiming to open the door to widespread adoption of sustainable practices in the palm oil industry, the WWF’s pilot project targeted a small group of farmers, introducing them to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a global organization of palm companies, retailers, financial institutions, and environmental groups. The RSPO operated a voluntary certification system for sustainable palm oil production. In July 2013, the WWF pilot group became the first independent small-scale farmers in Indonesia to get certified under RSPO standards. During the next three years, a handful of similar groups followed, but significant challenges remained ahead for efforts to shift the palm oil industry as a whole toward sustainability.
Blair Cameron drafted this case study based on interviews conducted in Jakarta, Bogor, and Riau, Indonesia, in October 2016 and in Bangkok, Thailand in November 2016. The British Academy-Department for International Development Anti-Corruption Evidence (ACE) Program funded the development of this case study. Case published January 2017.