Anita Neville is Vice President of Corporate Communications and Sustainability Relations at Golden Agri-Resources Ltd., the world’s second largest palm oil company, with a total area of 486,000 hectares and employing over 170,000 people. Anita oversees the development and delivery of GAR’s corporate and sustainability communications across all communications channels and to all audiences. GlobeScan Asia Pacific Director Wander Meijer spoke to Anita about GAR’s path to sustainability.
You have had an interesting career, working for government, NGOs, and now with GAR. Tell us about that.
I started off working in the Queensland Government in Australia, with the Minister of Environment and Heritage, developing laws and regulations that protected the environment from waste and water pollution. When I was at WWF-UK, we campaigned around things like the common agricultural policy. My time at the Rainforest Alliance was a definite shift because I wanted to work with food producers in practical ways to help them operate more sustainably and be able to demonstrate that. Throughout my career I’ve been able to work with organizations that are passionate about how they care about the planet, and I’ve consciously gotten closer to the people who are actually growing things.
Can you tell us a bit more about GAR’s path to sustainability?
GAR’s sustainability journey started as early as 1997, after the first horrendous forest fires in Indonesia that really caught international attention, and resulted in the company establishing a zero-burning policy. In the late 2000s palm oil took centre stage as a commodity of concern around deforestation, forest loss, and wildlife impact. It has been a challenging journey, and not one that has always come easy to the business. It is a journey that is very much driven by leadership which is one of the reasons I chose to join GAR.
In the height of the Nestlé/Greenpeace campaign against forest destruction, GAR was targeted in that dynamic because of our commercial relationship with Nestlé. So we had joint pressures of customers and NGOs asking tough questions. We sat down with Greenpeace and The Forest Trust (TFT), and established the industry’s first forest conservation policy back in 2011. Since then GAR has continuously strived to find what the next issue to be resolved is. Sustainability touches everything – it is a process of continuous improvement and learning.
Working with Greenpeace and TFT, GAR piloted and pioneered the high carbon stock approach, which is now ubiquitous amongst those who have no deforestation policies, strengthened social community engagement commitments, including a commitment to Free Prior Informed Consent with respect to the indigenous population, and also halted any development on peat.
In 2015 we developed the GAR Social and Environmental Policy. This is our roadmap through to 2020, and consists of four pillars: environmental management, social community engagement, work place and labor rights, and supply chain management.
There are 2.5 million independent smallholders who are part of our supply chain. In 2015 we mapped our supply chain to the mill, and we have over 450 third-party mills that supply us. Our expectation is that there will be hundreds if not thousands of plantations or farms supplying those mills. So we are now on a journey to track down exactly where every fresh fruit bunch comes from, right down to the plantation level.
The current consensus is that the world is becoming more complex and difficult to navigate – do you agree with this sentiment?
What we are trying to do here at GAR is essentially a cultural change project that we happen to call sustainability. We have more than 170,000 people that we employ in Indonesia alone, and most of them are not in an office like this. They are out on the plantation in remote rural locations. They don’t have the latest iPhone 8. Their connectivity is very random. How do I get to them and how do I change their mindset so that they’re on board with what we’re trying to do, which is predominantly driven by a set of sensibilities that sit in Canada or Europe or United States or my home country of Australia?
Ultimately we need to convince human beings to behave differently and to value things differently. Whether that is the guy harvesting fresh fruit bunches down on the plantation, or the commodity trader looking to make a deal, or the commercial buyer from a brand-named company who is also looking to make a deal, to the consumer and the choices that they make at the supermarket.
Do you see a disconnect between what the NGOs are saying about palm oil and what you are seeing on the ground?
Compared to its competitors, palm oil is incredibly efficient in terms of yield per hectare, fertiliser use, and other core inputs. That said, there are some very real issues at the plantation level between the communities and the palm oil companies, which we can’t ignore. Palm oil has a lot of things that it needs to set right and a lot of things that it can do better.
Most Indonesians involved in growing palm oil don’t really understand the sheer noise or the level of vitriol against the crop. I’ve talked to a fair number of smallholders, and they see it as an alleviator of poverty, as a mechanism by which they are able to send their kids to universities, and to give them and their families better opportunities. I think that is a story that we haven’t told well enough as an industry. Over the last year, we’ve tried to create a more balanced narrative about palm oil. We are not out there to deny or gloss over some of the real challenges in changing practices within the sector or even within our own business, but it is a very one-sided story if that is all the public are hearing.
How do you handle the criticisms levelled at your sector?
Within our sphere of influence, we try to focus on engagement first and exclusion as a last option. So within our own supply chain, where we identify suppliers who are not meeting the aspirations laid out in GAR’s Social and Environmental Policy (GSEP), our first step is to engage with that supplier. Find out what is really happening on the ground, and ideally work with them to define an action plan which they are then responsible for implementing.
At a broader level, because we’ve mapped out all our suppliers to the mill, we have been able to rank them based on risk factors that include things like proximity to protected areas, proximity to peat, whether they’ve had any social community conflicts registered or concerns about land tenure and legality. Using that risk matrix, we are able to proactively identify companies that should be observed more closely. We also create many learning experiences where we bring suppliers together, usually grouped around a particular refinery, to explain to them what our policies are, and introduce them to experts who can help them implement some of these things.
From a communications standpoint, we have worked to put the human stories out there. We’ve introduced a monthly sustainability e-newsletter that we are proactively disseminating to our customers, NGOs, community representatives, and the financial community. This enables us to tell them what we are doing instead of waiting to be asked what we are doing. When we put out our annual sustainability report, we do a series of webinars and actively explain to people what we are doing. We bring people to the field. We do many trips throughout the year to explore our plantations and talk to smallholders and others. For the first time ever, we are active on a number of social media channels. All of which can just sound like normal corporate PR fluff, but in the context of a company that really did not speak up unless it was forced to do so, this kind of openness and transparency and identifying stories within our own operations has been a very different step for us.
For our Meet the Makers campaign, we went out to our estates and mills and identified people doing different kinds of jobs in our operations, and told their stories. The stories are very human, in their own words, and are supported by some great photography. We have had tremendous feedback in support of it in terms of people saying, ‘oh I didn’t realise that about palm oil.’ For example, we have our owl keeper talking about integrated pest management, and our mapper who works in our Sustainability Division as part of our participatory conservation planning approach to keep the forest that we have set aside standing for future generations. It really humanizes the whole sustainability strategy.
If you put on your former Rainforest Alliance hat, which issue would you say GAR needs to further improve on?
I think that we still have work to do in the area of labor, but perhaps not necessarily in the ways that people might expect. Where I think we could do more is in the area of gender. We have some good plantation-level policies and practices, such as provision of childcare services, fridges, and breastfeeding centres. I think we could do more to encourage women to move up through the business, so that is a personal area of interest for me.
Another area of interest is the whole concept of how to secure a future rural workforce. People aren’t growing up wanting to be farmers anymore. We are investing in schools and scholarship funds. We are sending the kids of our workers to university, and they are not coming back to the plantation – they are going to Jakarta to find work. This is at a time where the industry needs competent, qualified, and engaged people. So how do you create the right environment to encourage people to come back to jobs that are not seen as having high value? We need engineers, food technicians, safety people, and mechanics – where will our future workforce come from?
Which achievement are you most proud of in the area of sustainability?
The identification and setting aside of 72,000 hectares of conservation forest – likely the largest conservation area set aside by a palm oil company. This means we are no longer using it for production, which has posed its own set of challenges. For the smallholders operating there, we have had to identify other areas of land to compensate for the forest being set aside.
We are now going through a process of participatory conservation planning, where we are negotiating with these communities to help them understand why we have set this area aside, and then help them identify alternative livelihood options so that they will help us keep these forests standing. It is a detailed process to work with communities in trying to find alternative income sources, and very much above and beyond what you would expect a normal agri-business to do.
While there is no direct economic benefit for the company, if we weren’t protecting those forests then access to international markets would be restricted. We are protecting against impacts down the road by saving these forests. We are investing in our brand, relationships with our stakeholders, and of course our clients.
My big ambition is to contribute to a thriving rural economy. Palm oil delivers significant export value to the Indonesian economy, and that value is imbedded in rural and regional communities. So the question is how do you keep them thriving, particularly in a country that is as geographically diverse as Indonesia is.
My personal ambition is to see how we go from a sustainability focus that is very much at the level of plantation and supply chain and mill, to a focus on our total operational footprint. That would enable us to include things like logistics, products, and packaging – a whole range of different areas that we have barely scratched the surface of in terms of sustainability improvements.