Recently, Unilever and the IDH Sustainable Trade Initiative announced that they are jointly investing €1.5 million to support the Indonesian district of Aceh Tamiang in its goal of becoming one of the greenest commodity-producing regions in Indonesia.

The investment will help support the protection of fragile forest areas in the Aceh region of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, while also providing assistance and training to smallholder farmers in best agricultural practices. This will improve their access to finance. The goal is to have these farmers achieve sustainability certification, such as the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) standards.

The initiative follows a partnership agreement we entered last year with IDH to support a Green Growth Plan for Aceh province. One of many such plans supported by IDH, the Aceh programme, aims to accelerate local sustainable development by helping smallholders sell their commodities into the global sustainable supply chain.

“We are very proud to support this initiative,” says Dave Ingram, Chief Procurement Officer at Unilever. “This investment is testament to our commitment to support smallholder farmers – the true stewards of the land – and to protect and restore natural habitats in urgent need of protection, such as the Leuser Ecosystem.”

Sensitive ecosystem

Aceh province is covered in part by the Leuser Ecosystem, an area of rainforest that, among other unique species, is home to the Sumatran orangutan, elephant and rhinoceros. All of these animals are under threat due to the incursion of unsustainable agriculture and mining.

Together with the neighbouring district of Aceh Timur, Aceh Tamiang has one of the few remaining lowland forest areas in the province. The district is also an important producer of commodities such as palm oil, natural rubber, pulp, coffee and cocoa.

Over recent decades, growing global demand for these commodities has caused areas of the rainforest to be cleared. Thanks to the collective efforts of government authorities, organisations such as IDH, and various local stakeholders, the rate of deforestation has begun to slow in recent years.

Yet the search for long-term solutions for forest protection continues – something Unilever has been actively involved in for many years now.

Involving smallholders

Aceh Tamiang is unusual compared to other districts in Sumatra because of the high proportion of smallholders versus private concessions. Of the 71,000 hectares cultivated for palm oil, smallholder farms occupy around 21,000 hectares (around 30%).

Many of these farmers have limited knowledge of good agricultural practices and often lack clear ownership rights over their land, explains Fitrian Ardiansyah, Chairman of IDH. This makes it “challenging” to ensure that the growing demand for palm oil from the area is conducted in a sustainable fashion, he concedes.

Protect, produce, include

Unilever’s involvement in the project will focus on a sub-district of Aceh Tamiang called Semadam and will follow a three-pronged approach: protection, production and inclusion.

As part of its protection work, the initiative will include a robust system for monitoring, verifying and reporting on deforestation. These insights will also help inform which areas will then be prioritised for rehabilitation through agroforestry.

At the heart of the programme’s sustainable production endeavours is the training of independent smallholder farmers in good agricultural methods and best management practices.

The training modules, which are practical as well as theoretical, include instruction in sustainable certification systems and of “no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation”’ policies, among many other themes.

The inclusion element of the pilot will involve a variety of mechanisms to involve and empower smallholders. A key aspect here will be encouraging the formation of farmer groups, which will assist in identifying collective needs and co-designing solutions.

H. Mursil, Head of Aceh Tamiang District, comments on the partnership:

“Unilever’s commitment will bring us one step closer to our green vision for Aceh Tamiang. We are committed to protecting the forest, increasing the productivity and yield of sustainable palm oil and improving smallholders’ livelihoods.”

Photo credit: Forum Konservasi Leuser

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