Insight from Brazil: integrating RSS with certification standards

The Responsible Sourcing from Smallholders (RSS) framework can be used by smallholders to improve farming practices in situations where they cannot afford certification or to bring their practices closer to the levels required. But RSS can also be used to help smallholders go through the process of reaching standards of a particular certification scheme. SHARP has been involved in a project in Brazil to test how RSS could be used for implementing standards of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) among small-scale soybean producers.

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RSS is a set of steps that are followed by a group of smallholders and an implementing entity, from assessment of social and environmental risks through development of an action plan to monitor and review. The RSS framework includes some minimum requirements for farming practices but also addresses a way to identify and address farmers’ needs.

Just as SHARP has been field testing the RSS framework in 2015, the RSB has been field testing its Standard for Certification of Smallholder Groups. The standard, which is modified from the general RSB Principles and Criteria, can be used by groups of smallholders farming up to 75 ha and allows participants three years to reach compliance. The smallholder principles and criteria cover human and labour rights, land rights and food security, biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, soil, water and air pollution, and use of technology. There are specific requirements for a Group Manager, and a simplified social and impact assessment and follow-up action plan must be completed.

Activities in the field

The project to field test the RSB standard among Brazilian smallholders and integrate it with RSS took place in the region of Paula Freitas, Paulo Frontin and União da Vitória, in Paraná state. It is a region with a strong presence of agribusiness, especially for grains (soybeans, corn, potatoes and beans), tobacco growing and also monocultures of pine, eucalyptus and poplar. The region contains important remnants of Araucaria forest. In April, representatives of RSB and SHARP’s regional focal point, Proforest, came together in the field with experts from Fauna and Flora International and SPVS (Sociedade de Pesquisa em Vida Selvagem e Educação Ambiental). First came a diagnostic phase. A risk and needs assessment was carried out with more than 25 smallholders and local stakeholders, in line with the RSS preparation and scoping phase.

A sample of seven farmers were then evaluated on site against the two approaches, by using the RSS requirements as a base and adding the RSB smallholder principles and criteria for year 0. There is substantial overlap between the two approaches and they were combined into a single questionnaire. In general the RSB requirements are more detailed, as expected from a certification scheme, and they include an additional area of controlling invasive species, but the RSS framework includes more guidance on a safe working environment.

In June, a workshop was held with the participating farmers, stakeholders and project partners to present the results from the consultations and on-site assessments. The field evaluations found a good level of compliance with most of the environmental requirements, but the main risk areas were legality, GHG emissions and worker health and safety. Attendees discussed how local organisations and initiatives could be used to help the target producer group and other smallholders in the region to achieve compliance with the RSB principles and criteria.

The added value of RSS

One of the advantages of incorporating the RSS framework is that it encourages a systematic consideration of the farming environment and institutional context. This widens the scope from the focus of the RSB standard on the producers’ smallholdings. Consulting local stakeholders and farmer leaders was a way to identify particular sustainability issues in the region and potential challenges to achieving compliance among the target smallholders. Inadequate use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and excessive use of pesticide were highlighted as issues among local soy farmers, for example. Flora and Fauna International and SPVS gave insights from their work in protecting and restoring local ecosystems following Brazil’s Forest Code (código florestal).

"Consultation identified 
sources of support such as the Child Protection Agency"

The consultation was extremely valuable in identifying regional sources of support. The Child Protection Agency can help to control the use of child labour on farms, working in partnership with local schools and businesses to verify that children are attending school. Agricultural training offered by the SENAR and EMATER agencies could help farmers to comply with the RSB and RSS requirements, and it was suggested that the Municipal Council for Agriculture could set up a scheme for monitoring the health of farmers who apply pesticides. Farmers reported that they had already approached the public health system as this is an area of concern, particularly because national legislation requires monitoring for contracted labourers.

RSS is also useful for developing a practical, step-by-step approach for improving farmers’ practices in response to the diagnostic findings. At the workshop in June, participants began to develop a work plan for implementing the RSB standards, initially addressing the highest risk areas. The RSS methodology also addresses farmers’ needs. This combination of requirements and needs creates a synergy that could help to meet the RSB certification standard from a broader development perspective and in line with the expectations of smallholders.

To progress with RSB certification, the partners will need to engage with buyers of certified soy and identify a suitable Group Manager. The RSB is now considering if the risk and needs assessment carried out under RSS could qualify as compliance with its Principle 2, requiring an impact and risk assessment and development of plans for implementation, monitoring and evaluation.

As the farmers and partners in Paraná move to Phase 2 of the project, other members of the SHARP partnership can draw on the lessons learned for incorporating RSS into stepwise approaches towards compliance with other certification standards in other contexts.

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