Continuing our #PeopleOfPalmOil series, Rudro Roy interviews TFT's Hilary Kung and Jason Benedict to find out the Mill Prioritisation Process
As of January 2019, The Forest Trust has become Earthworm Foundation.
“If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”
– Noam Chomsky
It is with this hope that TFT works every day to transform the conversation surrounding palm oil. But this requires humility. Why humility? Because it requires us to understand our limitations and admit that we can’t change the world alone. Nor can we be everywhere.
In our previous conversation, we spoke about the importance of finding out where a company’s palm oil comes from – traceability. But this is just the beginning of ART (Aggregator Refinery Transformation). Because we can’t be everywhere all the time, the next step is to decide which mills to visit to get an understanding of the situation on the ground. This is known as the Mill Prioritisation Process (MPP).
In search of some answers, I had a chat with Hilary Kung and Jason Benedict, TFTers who work to help companies prioritise and navigate within the intricate web that is the supply chain. The contents of our conversation were edited for clarity and brevity. Special thanks to Florian Wiesner for photographing our good sides, and to Mark Sanderson for his editing wizardry.
Rudro: My first question to you is why not visit all the mills?
Hilary: Because one of the companies I work with has close to a thousand mills supplying it in Malaysia and Indonesia alone! On average, one visit could take a minimum of four days. Add in the time it takes to do the reporting, and you’re looking at a week. So visiting all the mills would be very time consuming. It’s not a part of our strategy either. After all, ART is not about engaging the mills one-by-one or auditing them individually. It’s about scaling up transformation, and that’s why we do sampling.
Jason: Yeah, it’s about understanding the key environmental and social issues on the ground. And the assumption is that many of these issues will be quite similar within a certain area. So the sampling provides us with an understanding of the issues on the ground without having to visit every mill.
Rudro: Basically, we have limited resources and there are a lot of mills out there. So then what’s the first step of the MPP?
Jason: We first verify whether the company’s mill information is the same as ours. If there’s any discrepancy, in the GPS coordinates for example, we correct it and go on to the spatial and non-spatial analysis.
Rudro: What on Earth is spatial analysis?!
Jason: Spatial analysis is about studying an area using geographic properties. We enter the locations of the mills that supply the refinery on a GIS system and plot out the locations on a map. We then create a 50 km catchment area or boundary around all these mills, which we assume is the optimum area a mill will be getting its supply from. Anything outside that will usually mean the quality of the palm fruit is degraded. The spatial analysis looks at the various environmental factors that fall within these areas, like key biodiversity areas, legally protected areas, peat lands, etc. We also look at satellite images telling us how much forest loss has occurred within these catchments. We then create a table, with a score of one or zero for each of these factors.
Rudro: How does the scoring system work?
Jason: We’re trying to find out what proportion of these factors, like peat lands for example, fall within a particular area. It’s like a threshold. So if it’s above that threshold, we give it a score of one – meaning there’s a significant amount of peatland in that area. If it’s below the threshold, we give it a zero.
Rudro: You mentioned GIS just now. What’s GIS?
Jason: I saw this quote somewhere online. Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, GIS is “kind of like Google Earth, but better.” So you can visualize stuff geographically and see things on a map. But you can also do analysis. I think people use it every day when trying to find a location using Waze or using Google Maps. That’s also GIS in a sense. You are calculating the optimal route between where you are and where you want to go. And that’s a spatial query.
Rudro: So that’s the spatial part. What about the non-spatial analysis?
Hilary: We collect data that cannot be put on a map. This helps us to further understand which mills to prioritise for visits. For non-spatial analysis, we look at three categories: Publicly Reported Information (PRI), certification and volume importance. PRI is information that is available online to the public, for example, reports from NGOs or the Department of Environment. We cover three categories: environmental, social and legal. This encompasses everything from workers’ issues to public complaints about noise level; or mills that discharge effluent that exceeds the permissible limit.
Rudro: What about the other two factors? Why do volumes or the fact that a mill is RSPO certified matter?
Hilary: If the mill is RSPO certified, we assume it is undergoing regular checks. So we try to avoid visiting certified mills, unless the PRI (Publicly Reported Information) highlights recent issues with these mills. Volumes matter because all these mills are suppliers to refineries. So if we take into account the volumes that these mills supply, it kind of tells us the leverage we have. A higher volume means that the mill may have a higher impact on the refinery’s supply chain. We also try to incorporate local knowledge from the region. Of course, there are certain levels of confidentiality we need to respect. But we also try to approach the local NGOs or communities to get their input to help our prioritization process. Because of their proximity to the area, we recognised that we needed to incorporate this into the MPP. With the company’s consent, we did this in Sarawak, where we already had an established relationship with the NGOs. What I’m trying to say is that how we prioritise mills is based on a very documented process, in which we try to incorporate as much information as possible.
Rudro: Okay, so you analyse all this data and assign scores to each factor. What is the outcome of all this?
Jason: We produce a table and map showing the mills by their scores. There is also a table showing the high priority and low priority in different colours.
Hilary: We also produce a selection report. We propose the selection of these mills with justifications. That’s the main outcome of this report – the agreed selection of mills for us to visit.
Rudro: Has there ever been cases where you prioritise a mill, but the company believes other mills have a higher priority?
Hilary: We come up with a proposed list; but with alternative mills for consideration. So all this is open to discussion with the company. After all, we are not on the ground. We recognize that there is some information that the company may know, based on their business relationships and insight in the industry, that we may not have taken into account.
Rudro: Can things on the ground be different from what you can gauge through the MPP?
Hilary: Yes. On one occasion, the situation on the ground involved a prominent mill with a lot of good stories. We are open to that, because it gives us a good overall perspective.
Jason: I think it’s more complex on the ground. The MPP covers a very general range of factors in an area. It doesn’t get into the actual practices on the ground. Spatial analysis cannot show that people are practicing certain things on the ground – either in terms of conservation or treating workers well. It just tells you that there could be a possibility of something happening there.
Rudro: Is the MPP a unique thing?
Hilary: I think our speciality is the volumetric part. It’s one of the strategies of how we engage with the mills and use that leverage to implement change on the ground. The more oil a mill supplies to the refinery, the more leverage the refinery has to spread transformation up the supply chain. The hope is that transformation is cascaded to the mills, and the mills will spread it to the plantations. We are also revising and discussing with our Indonesian colleagues to improve and standardize the processes.
Jason: A lot of what’s out there is based on environmental factors. They may not have the non-spatial elements like the PRI stuff that we add to get a more comprehensive understanding of the issues at each mill. In terms of spatial analysis, MPP is a way of ranking certain things according to spatial factors – how close it is to this layer or that layer. In that context, I don’t think it’s a unique thing. But using it in the oil palm industry to understand the issues on the ground and do transformation work, I think that is pretty unique.
Rudro: Okay guys, last question. Tell me a little bit about yourselves.
Jason: My background is in remote sensing, which is basically using satellite technology to study the Earth from afar. It’s a mix of a science and an art, I would say. In addition to the technical stuff, making a map useful and being able to communicate things through it also is an art. I’ve worked in various industries, from consulting to NGOs. But I’m passionate about being in this space of helping the environment and people. I think TFT is unique in that sense. And it’s great for me to be able to use what I’m passionate about to transform things in this space.
Hilary: I studied environmental science and management, and was working for an environmental consultancy before I joined TFT. It was one of my lecturers who influenced me and made me passionate about doing something for the environment. She is someone who really walks the talk – from her lifestyle to really small things like how she packs her lunch. And that really inspired me.
Rudro: Thanks guys! That’s a wrap.
The palm oil supply chain is a maze. The MPP is way for us to plot a road map through this maze before entering it. As with the ART plan, the MPP is not meant to be used to find issues at each and every mill. Rather, it is a desktop study that allows us to select a sample of mills that can best represent the issues prevalent in a particular area. After prioritising which mills to visit, we have to get our hands dirty on the ground. This brings us to the next step – Deep Level Engagements.
We believe ART is a way to transform the industry at a greater scale. But transforming an industry is a huge task, and we can’t do it alone. With humility as our guide, we aim to bring people together to collaboratively tackle regional issues that are too big for any one group or individual.