TFT’s Justin Ford-Robertson shares his experiences of working with Wilmar.
As of January 2019, The Forest Trust has become Earthworm Foundation.
A project management offer from TFT was not in itself a daunting prospect. But joining a new company, partnering with Wilmar – a major corporate company, in a new sector, and moving to a new country – provided additional challenges. The reality of the role has been well beyond all my expectations.
I decided I wanted to be a forester at an early age. I loved the outdoor life and being active. Most of all I loved rugby and was determined to represent my country, New Zealand, as an All Black. One of my rugby heroes was lock forward Frank Oliver. He was a forester, so it seemed a good pathway to my dream. Sadly the rugby goal didn’t happen, but I pursued forestry with a passion.
I led a fairly simple life for several years, working largely with small to medium size enterprises in New Zealand to develop more sustainable land use and energy systems. My ‘turangawaewae’, (literally translated from Maori as ‘a place to stand’), is a remote block of land called ‘Whare Marino,’ or ‘house of peace.’ Far from our nearest neighbours, our self-sufficient retreat is where I feel especially empowered and connected. It is a place to be at one with nature beneath millions of stars.
Suddenly I was launched into Kuala Lumpur with TFT, living in a small apartment in a vast city. An urban jungle of concrete and traffic, with towering cranes constantly raising in the skyline above, while the colourful crowds scuttle about below among extensive shopping malls and enticing eateries. This was the new life I had chosen.
My grandfather was a forester and he fuelled my desire to follow in his footsteps. He also warned me that doing so would not be easy. Foresters need to be able to consider multiple factors, from trees and animals, to soil and water, and the people that live within forests and derive products and services from them. Most importantly they need to be able to plan ahead, sometimes decades and centuries into the future. He told me the solution was to ensure effective engagement with multiple stakeholders.
This wisdom has served me well throughout many complex challenges, and continues to play an important role in my work with TFT. This was just as well, because within 24 hours of arriving in Kuala Lumpur I met with Wilmar International, the largest palm oil trader in the world. A month previously they had announced their ambitious No Deforestation, No Peat, and No Exploitation policy. Already they were faced with questions and criticism from many sides and they were looking to us in TFT, their implementation partner, to help find solutions. This was no barrel ride, surfing in the green room. I suddenly realised the scale of the challenge and I felt I was about to be submerged and tumbled over a sharp coral reef.
Wilmar had raised a flag clearly stating their values to the world, and their desire to help the entire palm oil industry become more responsible. Putting the plan into action was one thing, but that was just part of the picture: now that a policy was established, everyone seemed to have an issue that they wanted to be addressed immediately. The policy did not just apply to Wilmar’s own operations, covering 90,000 staff and over 50 countries, but all their third party suppliers: several hundred mills in Indonesia and Malaysia alone, with each mill typically being supplied by 50-100 oil palm growers.
There is no such thing as a typical working day for our team. It could include engaging with government officials, customers, suppliers, NGOs or smallholder farmers; visiting oil palm growers or addressing grievances; developing new tools or delivering training; investigating and mapping supply chains or analysing traceability; preparing presentations or reports. There is no guide book to follow in most instances; this is front-line trailblazing full of surprises, set-backs and successes. TFT teams work alongside Wilmar’s team and relevant stakeholders to find ways to address challenges. This is not an academic exercise; although science plays an important role – the focus is finding practical solutions that can be implemented on the ground.
Wilmar are bold enough to try new approaches in their own operations, and they are big enough that others notice what they are doing. Communicating openly and providing case studies, tools and training helps to demonstrate their progress and allows others to adopt more responsible practices. In all this, we never forget the remaining challenges and the longer road ahead to realise true transformation across the industry.
After a little more than a year of the project I can say the progress has been extremely rewarding. The initial uncertainty and resistance from various stakeholders is waning as it dawns upon them that industry transformation is not only possible, but worthwhile. It is not just a developed country demand to reduce greenhouse gases from deforestation and peat drainage, but a way to protect tropical ecosystem functions and support sustainable development for numerous rural communities.
The scale of the challenge has only been exceeded by the level of effort by Wilmar and TFT. I have been warmly welcomed into the global TFT family, and particularly the expanding team in Malaysia. Our collaborators in Wilmar have been exceptional.
Any doubts I could have had over the commitment from a large corporate have been well and truly blown away. From the corporate offices, to field staff, they are making a difference every day, from protecting and enhancing ecosystems, to supporting communities, including providing schools for the children of their workers. I could go on and on, but suffice to say it has been a pleasure and an honour to work with such dedicated teams.
There is no guide book for our task. Every day there is a new question, a new challenge, a new opportunity. Find the data, engage the stakeholders, analyse the situation, consider the options, make a decision and go with it. Not every path leads to success, but we learn along the way. We are students as well as teachers, with “Two ears, two eyes, one mouth” as a guiding ratio for effective communication. I recall a Chinese proverb that tells us, “Those who say it can’t be done should not interrupt those who are busy doing it”. Our collective role is to discover the way forward.
Despite the rapidly increasing level of transparency in the Wilmar supply chain, and the growing signs of transformation throughout the industry, there is always more to do. We are no longer alone in the line-up on this wave of transformation, and the swell is picking up. The crowd is gathering on the beach and the support is greatly appreciated.
As I headed back to NZ for a couple of weeks over Christmas, I felt confident we will continue to make good progress in the coming year. My daughter told me to keep at it because we are doing the right thing. I couldn’t agree more. My personal thanks go out to all the wonderful people in TFT and Wilmar who are fundamental to making this one of the most exciting and enjoyable rides in the world.
Honoa te haere whakamua – let’s greet the future together. The murmuration is happening and it is wonderful to be a part of it.