Governance by guidelines: Shifting regulatory regimes of agribusiness and plantation investments in Southeast Asia | Land Portal

LANDac International Conference 2022 Session Summary

This panel was conceptualised around the current era of guidelines and certification as tools for resolving problems arising from weak regulation of agribusiness investments. Some of these tools include international frameworks, voluntary guidelines, and certification schemes for specific commodities and sectors such as palm oil and rubber. In Southeast Asia since the 2000s, millions of hectares of land and forests have been converted to commodity crops, including plantation concessions and other forms of agro-investments. Key questions we explore in this session are: (1) To what extent we can expect guidelines and certification schemes to influence positive changes in investor practices; (2) What are the advantages and disadvantages of approaches shared by our speakers; and (3) What are the implications for smallholders within the changing agrarian landscapes of Southeast Asia?


Key Takeaways

  • Southeast Asia is a hotspot for large-scale agribusiness and commodity crops, which have rapidly expanded with transboundary land investments, creating many challenges for communities and governments, including social and environmental impacts and land rights disputes. Leverage points to address these issues have variously included reputational risks, consumer pressures and certification schemes. 

  • The perceived weaknesses of some forms of certification, coupled with the need to regulate diverse agribusiness subsectors, have brought about a plethora of guidelines and notions of responsible investment, offering different frameworks to address persistent problems affecting rural landscapes and people.

  • Critically, these guidelines tend to be nonbinding, open to interpretation, and as such, considered at risk of manipulation towards different interests. Common issues exist across commodities, notably demand issues for sustainable products, trust issues between stakeholders, and capacity issues across different scales.

  •  While certain commodities like palm oil have been the first movers, other notable commodities in Southeast Asia like rubber and maize are only now exploring novel types of regulatory regimes. The progression of regulatory regimes within the palm oil sector could function as either a roadmap or a cautionary tale for other major Southeast Asian commodities. 

  • The underlying issue of ‘who’ should have the right to govern and ‘what’ aspects of sustainability should be governed remains unresolved. Furthermore, ownership over their ‘implementation’ of these regimes can often appear more in the hands of development agencies and civil society than state and private sector actors or smallholders. 

  • Overall, it is important to identify points for potential cooperation and cohesion between these different stakeholders. A potential starting point may be The ASEAN Guidelines on Promoting Responsible Investment in Food, Agriculture and Forestry (ASEAN RAI). However, possible normative limitations to this ASEAN initiative remain to be seen. 



Shifting Regulatory Regimes of Sustainable Palm Oil in Southeast Asia: Comparing Private and Public “SPOs”

Dr Helena Varkkey, Associate Professor at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Universiti Malaya


“RSPO lifts the ceiling; national SPOs lift the floor.”


Palm oil is the world’s cheapest, most efficient, and widely used vegetable oil. Indonesia and Malaysia are the two largest producers of the commodity, and here palm oil is positioned as a “golden crop”. However, it has also been linked to environmental and social issues. Various regulatory regimes have arisen to manage these externalities, most notably the multi-stakeholder governance format. The most recognisable in the sector is the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification scheme. However, the RSPO, like other such regimes, have been criticised for power imbalances, lowest-common-denominator type solutions, green-washing, and lack of accountability. Notably, this has been among the justifications for the withdrawal of Indonesia from the Roundtable and the development of rival national-based certification schemes in Indonesia and Malaysia. While RSPO is said to be pushing the ceiling of certification (focusing on major private companies) in the sector, MSPO and ISPO are lifting the floor (by focusing on the smallholders). However, all three schemes suffer from a lack of demand and amplify the issue of differing definitions of sustainability. It is also notable that there does not exist any ASEAN-level governance regime for palm oil, despite being a major crop for the region. 


Presentation 2

Sustainable rubber? Assessing emerging guidelines and initiatives in Southeast Asia

Dr Miles Kenney-Lazar, Assistant Professor at the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore


“The focus has been on making general improvements, not achieving an ideal model.”


Rubber is a colonial-era crop in Southeast Asia but has seen further expansion across mainland Southeast Asia since the 1990s. These new livelihood opportunities have come alongside significant socio-environmental consequences, including land loss, deforestation, biodiversity loss, pollution, and labour exploitation. Sustainable Natural Rubber (SNR) guidelines have emerged since 2017, the three prominent ones coming from the Chinese and Vietnamese Chambers of Commerce and the Global Platforms for Sustainable Natural Rubber. In contrast to palm oil initiatives, SNR guidelines were not consumer-driven. Instead, they were developed to address reupatational and investment risks, improve cultivation practices, follow sustainability requirements and trends, potentially improve market access and prices - to make improvements rather than develop an ideal model. All, however, are at the early stages of implementation (pilot projects, handbooks, toolkits). SNR initiatives have potential but are inadequate to address sustainability issues independently. While they have benefitted from the experience of first movers like palm oil, they remain problematically neoliberal, corporate, and private-driven approaches toward sustainability. Furthermore, the lack of certification mechanisms results in a lack of public accountability. However, they are important sites of leverage for change and critical engagement. 


Presentation 3

Experiences from the field: Seeking to influence rubber investors in Cambodia 

Asisah Man, Program Coordinator for Oxfam in Cambodia


“Both soft and hard advocacy is needed – naming/blaming/shaming and also collaboration.”


Rubber is Cambodia’s largest agro-industrial crop that was established in the Colonial France era and continues to grow. Rubber is considered the “White Gold” of Cambodia, and the exports of natural rubber products have also increased in recent years. By 2020, the Cambodian government has granted an economic land concession to 108 companies with 462,420 hectares for rubber plantations. Rubber investment is led by local companies, followed by investors in regions such as Vietnam, China and Europe. Industrial rubber occupies 60% of the total plantation area vs 321,100 family rubber growers, accounting for 161,160 hectares.  With this large land concession granted, the government expected the sector would bring many benefits to the national economy, society and the environment, especially contributing to increasing the income of farming families, creating jobs opportunity in rural areas and participating in the reduction of migration. The private sector plays key roles in ensuring the environment is not damaged, taking responsibility for human rights, due diligence, worker rights and ensuring the sustainability and responsibility of the investment by developing and implementing national and international standards guidelines and regulations with meaningful participation from all stakeholders.  


Presentation 4

Prospects of Responsible Agricultural Investment for improved governance of agro-investments in Mekong Southeast Asia

Dr Robert Cole, Mekong Region Land Governance project


“The ASEAN-RAI is beginning to reduce the operating space for bad actors.”


The previous presentations have illustrated the dense field of different forms of largely voluntary governance. This is challenging for companies and governments to navigate – but there is hope that ASEAN-RAI can serve as a common way forward. It cuts across the social, environmental, and institutional domains and connects with various other standards like FPIC and SIA, while its nonbinding principles tend to encourage consensus across different stakeholders. However, keeping to the ASAN Way mode of engagement, the generally soft language, lack of targets, and exclusion of key aspects may prove restrictive. The RAI principles have indeed increased visibility in national and regional policy agendas, which begins to reduce the operating space of companies with poor practices. However, companies that have thus been interested in applying the ASEAN-RAI guidelines are already concerned with brand image, creating a self-selection bias. In conclusion, ASEAN-RAI may not be a revolution. However, it is an evolution when we consider that in the recent past, very little attention was paid to these issues. Ultimately the revolution is when there is no longer any point in investing irresponsibly in ASEAN because the costs to firms would be too high.


Presentation 5

The best of intentions in Asia’s complicated rural world 

Professor Dr Jonathan Rigg, Chair in Human Geography, University of Bristol


“There is a sort of fiction that there is one game with one objective and one set of rules.”


Most frameworks we use leave unsaid who the “we” is, creating a sort of fiction that there is one game with one objective and one set of rules. This is related to the theme’s concept of (r)evolution. Expanding commodities, rubber, oil palm, and maize in Southeast Asia represents a revolution in land use ‘required’ for national development – with egregious social and environmental outcomes. While these are revolutionary in land-use terms, these revolutions are based on conditions that are persistent (rather than revolutionary) – unequal distribution of power and the ability of the centre and economic elites to set debates and shape development outcomes in particular ways. Hence, a revolution in one field may permit (only) evolution and stagnation, perhaps even regression in another. The various governance regimes presented seem to be nudging things forward in an evolutionary sense with the prospect of something more revolutionary down the line. Several questions remain: is this enough, and where is it headed?

Related content: 
LANDac Conference 2022
29 June 2022

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