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KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Efforts to certify entire districts or provinces as producers of sustainable palm oil could be a game-changer in reducing deforestation, haze and other environmental problems in Southeast Asia, according to a palm oil sustainability body.
Palm oil plantations in the region have tripled in just a decade, driving deforestation, habitat loss and the displacement of communities across Indonesia and Malaysia, the world's largest producers, environmental campaigners say.
Steps to produce more sustainable palm oil have become all the more urgent as parts of Southeast Asia are regularly covered in a blanket of haze due to heavy smoke from "slash and burn" forest fires and smouldering peat in Indonesia, where palm oil companies have large forest concessions.
Sustainable palm oil certification typically targets single plantations or mills that belong to companies or smallholders, but support is growing for land-use planning at a broader level, known as the "jurisdictional approach".
Stefano Savi, global outreach director at the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), said the organisation was working with the government of Sabah, a state in Malaysian Borneo, to develop a system of broader certification.
Sabah, which produces 12 percent of the world's palm oil, has proposed all its production should be RSPO-certified by 2025.
If the plan goes ahead, it would represent the first time a sub-national entity has committed to 100 percent certified palm oil production.
"This is very much in the early stages ... but it's a good step towards a broader approach to certification," Savi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The government of Central Kalimantan province in Indonesia has also committed to develop a jurisdictional approach to the sustainable production of palm oil, said Savi.
The approach would involve bringing provincial or district authorities together with communities to decide which areas are to be set aside for conservation and which can be used for growing certified oil palm, as well as other commodities and food crops.
Smallholders, who produce up to 40 percent of the world's palm oil, could benefit in particular as the current system of certification is often too costly and complex for them, said Savi.
Such changes would be a breakthrough for an industry that has come under fire for its impact on the environment and communities in palm oil-producing countries.
The RSPO, a body of consumers, green groups, plantation firms and consumer goods companies, has set standards for the production of certified palm oil, and is used by many palm oil buyers as an international sustainability benchmark.
It requires, for example, that its members stop cutting virgin forest, and only produce or source oil from trees planted on land to which growers have clear rights.
Demand for sustainable palm oil is rising, said Savi, with around a fifth of the world's palm oil now certified as such by the RSPO.
A growing number of companies that supply and purchase palm oil as a commodity - used in household products from shampoo to ice cream, as well as for fuel - now realise that, to keep on producing it in a world with limited resources, they have little choice but to change how they go about it.
"Especially the larger companies understand that in 20 years from now, they're going to have issues if they don't operate sustainably," Savi said.
But many of the pledges not to source palm oil from plantations on freshly cleared peat soils and forest land, or where the rights of workers and local people are abused, still need to be put into practice.
Savi said the RSPO had been able to track the origins of the current haze affecting Southeast Asia through online maps based on data from NASA and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Between January and August this year there were no fire alerts at RSPO-certified palm oil concessions, compared with 627 at those without certification, according to the data.
RSPO principles include zero-burning methods on palm oil plantations, Savi said.
"This shows that certification can also play a part in fighting the haze problem in Southeast Asia," he added. (Reporting By Astrid Zweynert; Editing by Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)