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Keeping smallholders in supply chains – and deforestation out

According to WWF, up to a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions comes from deforestation and forest degradation. Sustainably managed forests are also crucial to the health and livelihoods of the communities that live around them. Continuing our climate series, Ruth Nussbaum of Proforest explores how a new approach to forest management is helping smallholders manage their land successfully.

Ruth Nussbaum

Ruth Nussbaum

Director, Proforest

Ruth has worked with the sustainable production and sourcing of natural resources for two decades. She has extensive experience of helping companies to develop and implement responsible production and sourcing programmes; advising governments and NGOs on responsible natural resource management; and facilitating multi-stakeholder processes. Ruth is a co-founder and director of Proforest.

Responsible sourcing, zero deforestation: simple concepts in principle, perhaps, but the reality is complex and can be deeply challenging to apply.

Responsible sourcing aims to ensure that farmers’ production practices do not lead to deforestation and other environmental damage, and do have positive social impacts on rural communities. Responsible consumer goods companies want to ensure that the products they sell containing, for example, palm oil, are not contributing to deforestation and environmental damage.

So multi-stakeholder initiatives, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), have brought together producers, manufacturers, governments and NGOs to agree standards and processes like certification to define what we mean by responsible production practices. For many such responsible sourcing standards, a major aim is to ensure that producers don’t damage important ecosystems, that they protect environmental services and respect sites of social and cultural importance. Protecting these so-called ‘high conservation values’ (HCVs) is a cornerstone of many companies’ commitments to responsible sourcing.

How can we help smallholders adopt high conservation values?

But for a smallholder farmer, with 2 or 3 hectares of oil palm in Thailand, Ghana or Honduras, high conservation value is a pretty abstract concept. What does it mean on their farm? Is it a species of wildlife or an area of forest? How should it be managed?

Identifying high conservation values can be difficult and often requires expert knowledge that’s not available to smallholders. But without this step in the process, smallholders will be unable to achieve certification under schemes like RSPO, and risk being excluded from responsible supply chains.

This is the challenge that a partnership of organisations – including Unilever, Proforest, the HCV Resource Network and the SHARP Partnership – seeks to address. The HCV Resource Network and SHARP have developed a simplified HCV assessment process for smallholders to identify high conservation values on their farms, and to agree a plan for monitoring and protection. A group manager leads smallholders and communities through a participatory assessment and planning process to understand the concept of high conservation values and decide what it means for them.

“I am now a tree friend”

Mwajuma Hemedi

Mwajuma Hemedi

Palm oil tree farm owner


At the field testing stage, results are promising. In Tanzania, SHARP partner Seed Change has been working with groups of palm oil producers near Kigoma to raise awareness of HCV and RSPO concepts. Through training sessions and workshops with a group manager, the Upendo Group has identified 11 precautionary practices for managing high conservation values (see below).

Mwajuma Hemedi, who farms half a hectare of oil palm combined with subsistence production for home consumption, says: “My farming has changed. I can see the palm oil trees area growing very well. I am now a tree friend – I do not burn vegetation, I protect the forest. I am now a water friend – I do not dig out plants around our water sources.”

Responsible supply chains offer great opportunities for reducing the negative environmental impacts of commodity production, slowing deforestation and providing social benefits to producers and communities. What we need now are simple, practical and locally appropriate tools to apply responsible sourcing concepts on the ground with smallholder producers. We are proud to work with Unilever to support the work of the HCV Resource Network and SHARP Partnership to achieve that end.

Upendo Group’s Precautionary Practices

Seed Change, Tanzania

Seed Change, Tanzania

  • Planting of ‘water friend’ trees around the sources of rivers
  • No animal grazing around the river sources
  • Use tied-ridges on steep slopes
  • No draining of natural wetlands
  • No killing of rare animals
  • Respect traditional use
  • No farming around the water sources
  • No use of pesticides and insecticides closer to rivers and water bodies
  • No dumping of waste into the rivers
  • No use of poisoning that may affect animals
  • Respect village by-laws
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